In a strange sign of the times, Connecticut legislative leaders find themselves reminding rank and file lawmakers to pull their vehicles safely to the side of the road before casting votes or participating in public hearings.
It’s a phenomena unique to a year in which the General Assembly has moved most of its proceedings onto digital platforms as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But some members of Connecticut’s part-time legislature have taken advantage of the remote setting to participate on the go. Sometimes literally.
On Thursday, Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, appeared to be driving, squinting in the sun, as he cast a vote against a motion during an Insurance and Real Estate Committee meeting. On Wednesday, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, questioned a witness during a Judiciary Committee public hearing while watching the road from behind sunglasses.
Luxenberg was visible only momentarily. He glanced down at the camera, cast his vote and the committee’s clerk moved on. Rebimbas, meanwhile, asked a question while driving. The video shifted to the person answering. By the time it returned to her, Rebimbas appeared to have pulled over. Neither lawmaker immediately returned requests for comment on this story.
Legislative leaders from both parties say they have had or intend to have conversations with rank and file lawmakers on legislating while driving and other issues raised by the Zoom format.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R – North Branford, said Friday that listening to legislative proceedings while driving is no different than listening to the radio, but lawmakers should be parked before interacting.
“If people need to be Zooming from the car they obviously should be pulling over before they’re interacting and participating,” he said. “I think that all of us should be setting examples, especially in the age where distracted driving is so commonplace.”
In a statement through a spokesman, House Speaker Matt Ritter agreed.
“This is a situation that wouldn’t happen any other year, but members should never remotely participate in hearings, committee meetings or legislative sessions while driving. It is dangerous and it shouldn’t happen. I will remind all of our members at our next caucus to put safety first – pull over and park before going online,” Ritter said.
Lawmakers this year are weighing a pedestrian safety bill that would, among other things, impose stiffer penalties for distracted driving. The bill cleared the Transportation Committee earlier this month on a largely-bipartisan vote.
Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the bill, said his colleagues should be aware that they may be violating Connecticut’s distracted driving laws when voting while driving.
“I’m worried by some of the instances I’ve seen where folks are doing more than just listening to a committee meeting. They’re speaking, they’re voting, they’re taking their eyes off the road,” Lemar said Friday. “There’s a distinct difference between having a call on in the background and hearing what’s going on in a meeting and actively participating and speaking directly to the camera.”
Candelora said he was sure that all lawmakers wanted to minimize the prevalence of distracted driving. Those interacting with committees while driving were not only potentially breaking the law, but were also inviting a type of scrutiny they should try to avoid. He said it was one of many new wrinkles the Zoom-based proceedings had injected into this year’s legislative process.
Candelora has also encouraged members to set virtual screen backgrounds behind them, rather than display the interior of their homes to everyone watching the proceedings on the Internet.
“Frankly it is inviting people into personal settings that you didn’t otherwise see before and as a legislator I’m a little bit sensitive to that. I encourage people to use background screens as opposed to inviting the general public into your living rooms,” he said.
Some issues stem from the sheer length of this year’s proceedings.The General Assembly is considered a part-time legislature and most members have other jobs. With members of the public able to participate from home, legislative hearings this year often stretch on all day. Committee meetings also seem to run on longer on the remote platform.
“The level of workload has increased so much that many of us are literally working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. The boundaries have sort of been blurred so you are seeing legislators connected to Zoom while they’re driving, while they’re eating, while they’re just trying to function in normal life,” Candelora said. “That never would have happened if we were in person.”