Gov. Ned Lamont has been reluctant to reveal how he plans to handle the looming expiration of his emergency orders and legislative leaders were unsure Tuesday whether next month’s session would begin with a marathon debate on COVID policy.
The governor’s emergency authority, which is set to expire on Feb. 15, serves as the basis for ongoing orders ranging from mask requirements in schools to vaccine mandates for workers in certain fields. Lamont has maintained the authority since March 10, 2020 and the state legislature last voted to extend it in September.
But on Tuesday, as COVID cases surged amidst spread of the omicron variant and hospitalizations stood at 1,920 — just shy of the state’s April 2020 record of 1,972 — lawmakers said the administration had yet to ask for an extension or communicated their plans.
“The necessary meetings between the legislative branch and the executive branch that need to occur have not occurred,” House Speaker Matt Ritter said. “I’m not blaming anyone for that– this is Republicans, Democrats, everybody. There is a train heading down the track a month from now and I believe we need to have conversations much more rapidly.”
A spokesman for Senate President Martin Looney said the administration had also not asked Senate Democrats for an extension.
Asked about his plans during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, the governor said his general counsel was drafting a list of executive orders for the legislature to either codify or extend. He did not specify how that would be accomplished, however, he said the list would likely include ongoing orders on masks and COVID vaccinations. He urged the legislature to “weigh in.”
“Maybe they think masks in classrooms is too much or maybe they think we ought to have masks more broadly. It’s helpful for me if they weigh in and play a part in the decisions we’ve got to make,” Lamont said. “Near term, I’ve got to be able to move pretty quickly, so when it comes to being able to buy tests and things like that, it’d be helpful if they gave me those narrow permissions a little bit longer, but that’s what we’re talking about.”
Democratic lawmakers were waiting on the governor to make a request. Ritter said Tuesday, that given the state’s soaring COVID metrics, an extension of another 30 days made sense. However, absent a signal from Lamont, he said lawmakers should plan on spending much of February debating special acts and temporary laws to codify impermanent COVID policies.
“I am very nervous, as of Jan. 11,” Ritter said, adding that he planned to meet with House Democrats Wednesday to discuss the matter. “There is not as much time as people think and if the legislature is going to have to codify these things, you could be looking at days of debate.”
Ritter said debates over vaccine mandates for health care workers and vaccine or testing requirements for state employees could take upwards of 24 hours in the House. Meanwhile, he said he expected the state would continue to need to quickly respond to issues that crop up as a result of staffing shortages.
He pointed to an executive order issued by Lamont on Tuesday, which allows retired teachers to return to teach in an effort to ease the burden of understaffed school districts.
“That’s why we have a statute that allows the legislature to grant the governor this authority,” Ritter said. “For these exact situations. When he needs retired teachers to come back and work for a couple months or nursing homes to provide booster shots for their workers. It’s really hard to codify.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have long opposed any extension of the governor’s emergency authority. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said Tuesday that Democrats had backed themselves into a corner by not planning a way to manage the virus that did not involve a “broad delegation of authority” to the governor.
“I’ve always said we need to learn how to live with this virus,” Candelora said. “What we’re seeing is a lack of planning on the part of the Democrats. There is the ability to create a plan to run government under COVID and there hasn’t been a lot of prospective thinking and what we’re now seeing is government reacting to crisis as opposed to managing a crisis.”
Candelora said the Lamont administration had grown less transparent as the state’s virus situation has evolved.
“For the governor to suggest that he wants legislative input, I would suggest he look at a process that allows for legislative input rather than continuing to take the power to administer in secret,” he said.
Ritter said he had requested a meeting with the executive branch and suspected one would take place soon. In the meantime, what did he plan to tell House Democrats when he briefed them Wednesday?
“You have no idea what your February’s going to look like. You are likely voting on every single executive order. And you’re also deciding how long they should be in effect — this includes masks in schools, how we deal with towns,” he said. “If you had a vacation in February, cancel it.”