The Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford
The Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford, shown in January 2020. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

With the legislative session set to begin next month, state policymakers Tuesday were debating which branch of government should hold the reins of managing the COVID-19 pandemic and how to maintain federal reimbursements associated with emergency declarations.

For nearly two years, Gov. Ned Lamont has maintained a level of emergency authority allowing him to quickly enact COVID policies and alter state law. Those declarations also qualify Connecticut for about $50 million in federal funding. That emergency is currently set to expire on Feb. 15.

In an interview Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter said his caucus favored letting the governor’s powers expire and managing the pandemic via temporary laws until mid-April while the legislature was in session.

“We’re not saying the emergency is over, we’re saying we’re going to manage it in a different way,” said Ritter, who met with other House Democrats Monday night. “The governor will not be able to issue new executive orders. That’s what we’re saying.”

In the past, Lamont has requested the legislature extend his authority as the pandemic has persisted. However in recent weeks, he has asked lawmakers to codify a handful of continuing emergency orders and has taken a neutral stance with regard to his emergency powers, saying the state, if not the executive branch, should maintain some additional flexibility. 

The position finds the legislature preparing to debate the governor’s policies — including an order which has resulted in students wearing masks in Connecticut classrooms and has been controversial among an outspoken group of parents — while potentially preserving Lamont’s ability to issue new policies. Ritter said it did not make sense to do both.

“I think the members are in agreement that we have two paths we can go down. You pick one at this point, you don’t pick both,” Ritter said.

House Democrats are considering enacting a legislative version of an emergency declaration, designed to preserve Connecticut’s eligibility for reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s a route that legislative Republicans have been advocating for months. 

Ritter said the legislature could adapt as necessary to changes in the pandemic until about April 15. At that point, he said lawmakers should consider who would steer the state’s pandemic response after the session ends in early May. The timing is designed to avoid a situation where pandemic policy eclipses the final days of the legislative session. 

“If you’re dealing with this on April 30, that will be the last week of session and there will be a lot of bills that will die because of that,” Ritter said. 

The House speaker’s comments reflect a meeting with his caucus and any movement towards more legislative oversight of pandemic policy is likely to be welcomed by Republicans in both chambers who have opposed the last few extensions of Lamont’s authority. 

During an interview Tuesday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said it was past time the state’s COVID management was crafted through a more inclusive process. 

“There can be a deliberative process. There can be public hearings. The governor could have instituted a more inclusive process going back to the fall,” Candelora said. “A lot of the orders were done behind closed doors, without the collaboration needed to create a good product.” 

However, Senate Democrats had yet to meet on the issue, a spokesman said Tuesday. 

“The Senate Democratic caucus will be meeting soon to discuss the best way to move forward to preserve federal funding and protect the safety of the residents of Connecticut,” Senate President Martin Looney said in a statement through a spokesman. 

During an unrelated event Tuesday, Lamont stressed the importance of the state’s continued eligibility for federal reimbursements. 

“I’d like to think they’re going to pass or pass with adjustments the 11 EOs we need in order to be able to move quickly in case there’s another variant,” Lamont said. “Otherwise, look, the legislature’s in session for the next you know, 90 days. So we’ll be able to manage accordingly.”

Ritter said House Democrats were considering their own additions to the package of policies the governor had requested, including making no excuse absentee ballots available in any elections that occur before April 15. 

And what happens when the legislature is no longer in session?

“That’s a helluva question,” Ritter said. “You may go back to a situation where you codify things longer. You may have to create a whole new framework. You may give him his powers back. You may have nothing in place when you get to May 5. I don’t know.”