House Speaker Matt Ritter is sworn in by his sister, Jessica Ritter. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

State lawmakers in Hartford kicked off a new term Wednesday by reelecting legislative leadership on bipartisan votes and drawing stark contrasts against ongoing congressional dysfunction playing out this week in Washington D.C. 

The Connecticut General Assembly began its 2023 session in a state Capitol complex which had been completely open to the public for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced its closure and a shift to largely remote proceedings.

Public onlookers watched House and Senate lawmakers take the oath of office from crowded chambers and third floor galleries, which remained locked during last year’s partially open session. Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, was sworn in by his sister Jessica for a second term as House Speaker on a dais stripped of plexiglass dividers that had been erected as temporary barriers to virus transmission.

On opening day, before the introduction of sometimes controversial legislation and competing budget priorities, the proceedings had an air of cooperation that stood out against the backdrop of an ongoing struggle in Washington to elect a congressional house speaker. 

“You’re right, we are not D.C,” Ritter said, responding to House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora’s endorsement of continuing his tenure as speaker. “Sometimes people think that the fact that we get along somehow means that I’m not doing my job, the majority leader’s not doing his job or you’re not doing yours. That’s such a false narrative that has sorta gripped politics.”

House Minority Leader Vin Candelora. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Candelora, beginning his second term as the chamber’s Republican leader, had seconded Ritter’s nomination and praised his political opponent for conducting House business in a manner that was inclusive to both parties. 

“What is so unique to Connecticut as opposed to the federal level is we can certainly disagree on policy — we’re going to continue to do that — so this nomination has nothing to do with waving a white flag,” Candelora said to applause from the chamber. “I nominate Matt Ritter because of the process.”

Lobbyists and members of the public congregated on the third floor, open for the first time since the outset of the pandemic. 

Senate President Martin Looney is sworn in by Judge Brian Fischer. (Christine Stuart photo) Credit: Christine Stuart photo

In the third floor chamber, Senate President Martin Looney was sworn in by Superior Court Judge Brian Fischer who gave Looney a kidney back in 2016 and swore him in during 2017 just two weeks after their surgery. 

Looney, who has served in the General Assembly for more than 40 years, joked he was going to talk about each of the two years he served, but his staff warned the chamber would be empty before he got through the 1980s.

As for 2021 and 2022, Looney said they had a highly successful term with a balanced budget and “unprecedented payments to our pension funds.” 

He reflected on the $600 million in tax cuts, including the suspension of the gas tax and the $250 child tax credit. 

Going forward he said they plan on doubling down on the progress they’ve made addressing the issue of child mental illness highlighted by the pandemic. 

Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury takes the oath of office. (Christine Stuart photo) Credit: Christine Stuart photo

“We must make a more urgent effort to meet the mental health needs of children,” Looney said. “We must improve Medicaid and insurance reimbursements for children’s mental health to encourage more providers to take on these children.” 

He also said they need to find a way to find more affordable housing in communities that have failed to recognize “we are one Connecticut.” 

But Looney said they have to do these things in a way that leads to consensus building. 

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly was also re-elected to his post as minority leader of the chamber. He mentioned the high cost of energy and health insurance. 

“We must make to sure everyone has opportunity,” Kelly said. “For far too many families 2022 was a year that had significant challenges. Record breaking inflation, strained family budgets are making it increasingly difficult to afford to care for a family.” 

He also reflected on two years ago when lawmakers were sworn in during a ceremony outside the state Capitol in order to protect members from COVID-19. He said he hopes they will govern with transparency and sunlight and continue to keep the building open to the public. 

He voted against the adoption of the rules however because it requires members of the public who want to testify at a public hearing to have access to a phone or computer to sign up to testify. He said that still creates a barrier. 

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who was also sworn in during the Senate ceremony, mentioned last year’s passage of a law that prevented other states from penalizing abortion providers for offering their services. 

She also touted recreational cannabis, which will “allow our state to gather millions of dollars in tax revenue, but also erasing the records of approximately 44,000 Connecticut residents convicted of cannabis possession.” 

The Senate and the House are both controlled by Democratic majorities, but at least two Democratic members of the House did not take the oath of office Wednesday. Rep. Ed Vargas of Hartford and Rep. Dan Fox of Stamford. 

Vargas is taking a teaching job at a university and Fox is expected to be nominated for a judgeship. 

Special elections will be held soon to fill their seats.