HARTFORD, CT — The legislature’s Public Health Committee tabled one controversial issue and raised another during one of its first meetings of the session Wednesday.
“When we get to the controversy I don’t want anyone to say we didn’t follow a good process,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said.
Steinberg co-chairs the committee and believes it can tackle contentious issues such as removing the religious exemption to childhood vaccines and aid-in-dying while also tackling COVID legislation.
When it comes to the religious exemption, Steinberg said the legislation they plan to introduce is exactly the same as what the committee approved last February before the legislature adjourned due to COVID-19. This year’s legislation, which has yet to be drafted, will grandfather in children who already have a religious exemption.
An estimated 7,800 children with religious exemptions already are enrolled in Connecticut schools, according to the Department of Public Health’s latest data from 2018-2019. Under the legislation, children from preschool to grade 12 who already have a religious exemption would be allowed to continue going to school. But going forward, if the bill passes, the only exception for vaccination would be a medical exemption.
Opponents of the vaccine bill who protested at the swearing-in ceremony two weeks ago, asked the committee to postpone debate until they can come and testify in person. They sent lawmakers a petition with 10,000 signatures asking the committee to delay debate until the building reopens.
The state Capitol and Legislative Office Building have been closed to the public since last March and there’s no indication of when it may reopen. The means all public hearings are being conducted online.
After lengthy debate Wednesday on how the legislative process should move forward, Steinberg agreed to table the discussion until next week when the language of the bill would be finalized.
Some lawmakers who oppose closing the vaccine loophole feel the religious exemption and aid-in-dying shouldn’t be raised for debate in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Is it appropriate to have this kind of bill be raised during a pandemic when people’s point of whether they can participate in the democracy we have and be able to come and have their grievances be heard and look at their legislature in the eye, is that possible?,” Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said.
For Somers the answer is “No.”
“There is something very different about being in the Legislative Office Building when you have people around you trying to bend your ear or talk to you in person versus being at home or wherever you have internet service at the moment, it’s a very different dynamic,” Somers said.
But some lawmakers felt it was a debate worth having even if it has to be virtual.
“This is raising concepts. If we don’t like them we should vote them down,” Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said.
“I don’t know how we decide which bills are going to be too controversial or too unreasonable ideas that they don’t make it onto the list,” Tercyak added.
Some lawmakers struggled to understand why an elected body would decline to debate an issue.
“I can’t seem to wrap my head around the notion that we can conduct business virtually on things we support and we can’t conduct business on bills we can’t support,” Sen. Will Haskell, D-Wilton, said.
The issues are not new.
Sen. Mary Abrams, D-Meriden, said the public is waiting for Connecticut lawmakers to address these issues.
“There’s just no reason to postpone them,” Abrams added.
She said it’s still unclear how many bills the Public Health Committee may raise this year, but she believes it will be fewer than past years due to the amount of time it takes to get through a virtual legislative hearing.
Wednesday’s meeting to raise concepts would have typically lasted less than an hour, but lawmakers have to show their faces when they vote and it takes a long time to get through every committee member.