House Speaker Matt Ritter gavels out of the 2022 legislative session Credit: Hugh McQuaid photo / CTNewsJunkie

The recently completed short legislative session reminds us of the important work done by the General Assembly. It can be ugly but it’s where deals are cut, the sausage is made and legislation is sent to the governor’s desk for his John Hancock.

For timely insight, look no further than the “Winners and Losers” analysis published last week by my colleagues Christine Stuart and Hugh McQuaid. In addition to the midstream adjustment to the biennial budget, legislation was passed that addresses the mental health crisis afflicting the state’s children, expanding access to absentee ballots, protecting data privacy, a dubious new compensation package for state employees, and more than $600 million in tax cuts which Democrats heralded as “historic” and Republicans dismissed as temporary, McQuaid and Stuart reported.

Among the causes whose outcomes were less than victorious were a ban on flavored vapes, a bill on assisted suicide and the legalization of so-called cannabis bazaars. As most regular readers of this column might expect, I am very disappointed that once again lawmakers essentially tabled a bill that would have allowed auto manufacturers such as Tesla to sell directly to consumers instead of forcing them to go through a middle man who takes a cut of the spoils, whether his services are truly needed or not.

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Finally, though they would undoubtedly have preferred to keep it quiet, lawmakers also approved pay raises for themselves — and the state’s constitutional officers. This is always controversial — even if the raises are merited — because of the obvious conflict of interest inherent in such an act.

Lawmakers at the Capitol have not had a raise in more than 20 years, so it was definitely time to boost their pay. The problem I have is that the legislation, which would boost base pay of members from $28,000 to $40,000 next year, ties future pay increases to the Employment Cost Index to be adjusted every two years. 

That means future raises will, for all practical purposes, be automatic. That’s not exactly a profile in courage, dear lawmakers. If you feel you need a raise, then have the guts to vote for it. Sometimes, I wish Connecticut residents had the ability to veto bad legislation through ballot initiatives, as Massachusetts voters do.

Nine years ago, Bay State legislators wanted to raise the gasoline tax and tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index, thereby obviating the need for lawmakers to go on the record as supporting future increases. The powers-that-be on Beacon Hill could just throw their hands up and say, “There’s nothing we can do about it, folks. Our hands are tied.”

Massachusetts voters responded in a manner that is forbidden in Connecticut. They picked up their pitchforks and organized a petition to repeal the automatic increases via ballot initiative. The repeal passed with 53% of the vote.

Indeed, I have a better idea — floated on these very pages more than two years ago — for how to shape the General Assembly for maximum efficiency and pay legislators what they’re worth: Raise pay dramatically — say to $100,000 per year. But reduce the total number of legislators from the current 187 down to 75 or so, similar to Nebraska’s unique and nonpartisan “Unicameral.”

No outside employment (all those side jobs do is create conflicts of interest) and no more mileage reimbursements for simply driving to work at the Capitol. As I wrote at the time, “If 75 full-time men and women and their army of staffers in Hartford can’t run the legislative branch for a state of 3.5 million people, then we’re screwed.”

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The reaction among Connecticut’s political elite to a draft opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court — recently leaked to Politico — overturning the Roe Vs. Wade abortion decision, was predictable in a state that has for decades supported abortion rights.

All the big guns were in high dudgeon, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, members of the General Assembly and constitutional officers such as Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General William Tong.

Supporters of abortion rights have focused on the horrifying implications of the opinion, if indeed it replaces Roe as the law of the land, while abortion foes have honed in on the appalling nature of the leak itself. Both are outrageous, but I think Connecticut Republicans got this about right. 

As the two GOP leaders in the General Assembly, Rep. Vince Candelora and Sen. Kevin Kelly, have said, the ruling is troubling on the national level and its implications are profound, but any ruling on abortion from the highest court in the land will have virtually no impact on Connecticut, where abortion rights are codified in state law. That could be overridden if abortion opponents in Congress try to pass a national ban on the procedure. That would be a heavy lift, even if the Republicans gain control of Congress in the midterm elections this year, because the GOP would need 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate.

One thing is certain, however. The midterms will be a sight to behold. With so much at stake in the culture wars, both sides will be highly energized. And if the attempt to stave off a federal ban fails, women can always travel to my old stomping grounds, where officials say they will be welcomed by abortion providers. O Canada, we are lucky to have you as a neighbor.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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