House Speaker Matt Ritter addresses the chamber Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A session to extend the governor’s emergency powers began Monday with a warning from House Speaker Matt Ritter who said he would break from tradition to end debate if members did not comply with the chamber’s mask policy.

“If I find there is continuous, wilful and substantial non-compliance with the mask rule in this chamber I will turn to my majority leader and I will ask him to call the question and end debate. We will then vote on the people’s business and go home,” Ritter said as he gaveled the chamber into the special session. 

The announcement was a response to a hearing last week, in which the Conservative Caucus heard opposition to vaccine or testing requirements issued by Gov. Ned Lamont. Throughout the several-hour hearing, Republican lawmakers and members of the public went largely unmasked despite a policy that people wear masks inside the Legislative Office Building, as well as an executive order requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks while indoors in public. Republicans said they had complied with guidance from the Capitol police.

Ritter’s threat to “call the question,” a legislative maneuver to end debate on an issue and proceed directly to a vote, would be a departure for the Connecticut legislature where both parties have observed a tradition of allowing unlimited debate. 

“I have protected [the tradition] from both sides and have never allowed anyone on the Democratic side to call the question,” Ritter said, adding that refusing to wear masks deprived some lawmakers the right to feel safe in the chamber. “The only way I would ever agree to end this tradition, is if people are flaunting our public health rules, looking for some provocative response and I will not oblige in that.”

Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thompson Credit: CTNewsJunkie / CTNewsJunkie

Some Republicans bristled at the warning. Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thompson, stood to ask that the Legislative Management Committee be involved in setting the Capitol’s public health policies and potentially ease the masking requirements.  

When the chamber moved to adopt its rules, normally an uncontroversial task, some Republicans called out “nay” on the voice vote. Rep. Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford Republican who co-chaired last week’s hearing, questioned the results of the voice vote.

“There was a voice vote. You have discretion to determine how that voice vote went but I do concur that at least on this once, we should have a roll call vote,” Fishbein said. 

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

On the roll call vote on another set of rules Republicans voted as a bloc against them. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora told reporters he expected his caucus would comply with the mask rule. He worried the speaker’s announcement would enable Democrats to end debate by removing their own masks. 

“Nobody should be using COVID rules to try to stifle debate,” Candelora said. “This delegation of power has already put government in the dark and a rule like that is only going to further put government in the dark and people should be worried about that.”