The governor’s nomination of Katie Dykes to serve another term as Connecticut’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection has met some resistance in the legislature in part due to her agency’s handling of recent updates to the state’s bottle bill.
When lawmakers met for session on Wednesday, they took votes confirming a handful of Gov. Ned Lamont’s appointments. Despite being on the House calendar, Dykes, who has led the Energy and Environmental Protection Department since 2019, was not raised for a vote.
That’s because on a day when inclement weather had been forecast and lawmakers would also debate a new four-year contract for state police as well as other nominations, Dykes’ reappointment was expected to generate lengthy discussion
Part of that debate would have centered on DEEP’s implementation of a 2021 bill, which will increase Connecticut’s bottle deposit to 10 cents next year. At the start of this year, the bill also expanded the slate of drinks subject to the charge to include coffee drinks, Gatorades, energy drinks, hard ciders and hard seltzers.
It’s that last part, hard seltzers, that has some lawmakers frustrated and others crafting an emergency fix expected to be raised in early February. While the language of the original bill does mention hard seltzers, while debating the proposal, lawmakers said they meant malt beverages and explicitly excluded types of hard seltzers made from wine or spirits like vodka.
It’s an important distinction, according to House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, who said carbonated beverages made from spirits came from a different part of the alcohol industry not previously subject to bottle deposits.
“That legislative intent was put on the record,” Candelora said. “We were all surprised in January to find that DEEP included those spirit-based drinks as being part of the bottle bill and so, without any conversation, that came out.”
Testifying before the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee earlier this month, Dykes told lawmakers her agency implemented the language of the bill and had not been aware of exclusions delineated through the floor debate. She said DEEP would exercise discretion and not collect a bottle deposit on the spirit-based seltzers while the legislature works out a fix.
“There was no intention from DEEP to go against the legislative intent,” Dykes said. “There’s no sorta motivation to go against it. I’m a recovering attorney so I shouldn’t say this but, my understanding is that the first step is you look at the language and if the language is clear in the statute, then that’s what you implement. If it’s unclear, then you go to the legislative intent.”
Dykes said her agency’s consultation with the Attorney General’s Office confirmed their reading of the bill.
Asked about the bottle bill earlier this week, House Speaker Matt Ritter said the law needed to be fixed but he did not attribute the problem to DEEP.
“DEEP’s been great so it’s not them. It’s just sometimes what gets drafted and said on the floor doesn’t always make it to the end,” Ritter said.
On Friday, Environment Committee co-chair Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, said policymakers had been meeting with the agency and representatives of the spirit industry to work out a compromise that would clarify that the deposit charge did not extend to spirit-based seltzers. That bill will likely be fast-tracked in the next several weeks.
However, Candelora said his caucus’s concerns about Dykes’ agency extended beyond the bottle bill and included the department’s waste management proposals as well as its handling of the recent growth in Connecticut’s black bear population.
“What I have seen out of that agency is they operate out of crisis as opposed to collaboration,” Candelora said. “And that behavior needs to end because there are significant impacts on people’s livelihoods and their lives.”
Concerns are not limited to the legislature’s Republican caucuses. In an email last week, Rep. David Michel, a Stamford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, offered a lengthy critique of DEEP.
Michel accused the agency of pushing a bear hunting agenda harder than a public education campaign on preventing conflict with bears. He also charged that the department had been lax in its environmental stewardship.
“The scariest thing is while the agency is failing to adequately protect the environment and public health, they seem to strongly push against science way too often,” Michel wrote.
In a statement issued Friday, the governor said he looked forward to Dykes’ reconfirmation.
“Commissioner Katie Dykes works tirelessly on behalf of the State of Connecticut to champion policies that deliver on the promise of preserving the environment and our sustainable energy future, while protecting ratepayers and addressing climate change,” Lamont said. “Connecticut is fortunate to have someone with her unmatched expertise leading the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.”
Dykes, meanwhile, told lawmakers she was proud of the work her agency had accomplished in the last four years including maintaining outdoor recreation options at state parks during the height of the pandemic and reducing the department’s permitting backlog by 58%.
Her nomination hearing was accompanied by written testimony of support from the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Lori Brown.
“Commissioner Dykes understands the importance of investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and reducing vehicle emissions to address climate change,” Brown wrote.
On Friday a spokesman for House Democrats said the chamber’s leadership expected that Dykes’ nomination will eventually be raised on the floor, though they were unsure when.
Candelora said that debate may be lengthy but not what he would call a “filibuster.”
“I just think there’s a level of frustration that is going to need to be expressed,” he said.