Members of the Judiciary Committee listen as Rep. Doug Dubitsky speaks during a meeting on March 31, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

By last week Connecticut legislative committees had advanced nearly 700 bills, seeking statutory changes on everything from road safety to bear management. But a few proposals were “dummy bills” intended – at least at the moment – to do nothing.

Think of a dummy bill or placeholder bill as an empty container. They might feature language calling for a study of a vague topic. Committees sometimes approve them before hitting their deadlines to pass proposals. 

The bills may progress no further in the process or lawmakers may use them as vehicles to address unexpected issues that arise after it’s already too late to raise new bills. Other times they are used to resurrect proposals that failed at some point in the session or to break long, complicated bills into smaller pieces. 

Dummy bills came under scrutiny during a meeting of the Judiciary Committee last week, when one lawmaker, Rep. Doug Dubitsky, objected at length to each of four bills he identified as a placeholder.

“I think it is an affront to our system,” Dubitsky said of what he expected would eventually become of Senate Bill 1207, an Act Concerning the Study of Civil Laws in this State. “Frankly, I think it’s dishonest of us to do. I know that both parties love it because it gives them an opportunity to sneak things in at the end when nobody notices it.”

Dubitsky, a Republican lawyer from Chaplin, has objected to the use of placeholder bills since taking office in 2015 and has often voiced opposition to them during committee meetings and on the floor of the House, arguing they circumvent the public hearing process.

Despite his objections, Senate Bill 1207 passed the Judiciary Committee on a 31 – 6 vote with support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Next up was Senate Bill 1212, an Act Concerning a Study of the Criminal Procedure Laws of this State. 

Dubitsky argued the bill would likely have nothing to do with criminal procedures by the time it hit the floor of the Senate. He recalled another dummy bill from a prior session.

“It was a dog bill that had a title about dogs,” Dubitsky said. “What actually got inserted into that bill dealt with covering of cement plants. It had nothing to do with dogs but it still had that same title, still had that same number and we voted on it.”

He asked his colleagues to imagine citizens following the legislative process from home with an interest in a bill that was apparently about dogs. 

“Suddenly their bill now talks about cement plants. Well that’s the same thing this bill is here for. Dubitsky said. “It’s just an empty vessel that’s going to be filled in later without any ability for the people of this state to make any comments.”

The bill passed 31 – 6. 

The panel’s co-chairman Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, joked about the next proposal, House Bill 6886, an Act Concerning a Study of the Civil Procedure Laws of this State. Stafstrom, a lawyer, said he hoped the study would look into reducing the size of the Connecticut Practice Book, a tome of court procedures and legal rules.

“It takes up quite a bit of room on my desk and I feel like it should be a larger font too,” Stafstrom said to some laughter in the hearing room. “It’s tough to read that small font.”

Rep. Craig Fishbein, a Republican lawyer from Wallingford, offered solutions.

“Since we’re talking about the practice book, I just want to bring to your attention that we now have an electronic version of the practice book,” Fishbein said. “You can make it larger on your computer. It’s word-searchable, which I find to be very helpful.”

Dubitsky didn’t want to talk about the practice book. He questioned how the bill differed from the similarly named proposal that preceded it. When Stafstrom answered that one bill would study law while the other would study procedure, Dubitsky suggested neither bill would result in a study. 

“Neither one of these committees will ever be created because neither one of these bills will ever see the light of day as drafted because they are dummy bills,” Dubitsky said. “Did I mention that dummy bills are intended to circumvent the public hearing process? I think I mentioned that.”

The bill passed 31 – 6. 

When the committee raised House Bill 6895, an Act Concerning a Study of Criminal Laws in this State, Dubitsky said it hardly mattered what was written in the bill.

“I could have an amendment to ban balloons. We could pass it. It wouldn’t make any difference,” Dubitsky said. “You could just have random words in this bill. You could just take a thousand words out of the dictionary and put it here. It would mean the same thing as what’s in here now.”

Later, he compared Connecticut to a banana republic.

“We don’t even know what’s in them [the bills]. That is no way to legislate. That is no way to have representative government,” he said. “That’s how banana republics work. We are not a banana republic, we shouldn’t work this way.”

Throughout most of Friday’s meeting, no one on the committee challenged Dubitsky’s objections, but the banana republic comment prompted a response from Stafstrom, who said the state’s part time legislature was subject to tight deadlines. 

“We see every year that throughout our legislative process, things happen. Stuff comes up. Things that were not contemplated the first two weeks of January need to be dealt with come May,” he said.

Stafstrom pointed to a number of uses for the dummy bills including for the benefit of Republican lawmakers who often request that bills be divided so members can vote in favor of provisions they support and against provisions they oppose, Stafstrom said. 

“While I understand your concern, I did feel that I just needed to put that on the record in defense of those who are voting in favor of these bills today and are voting in favor of allowing us the flexibility to do the business of the state of Connecticut,” he said.

The bill passed 31 – 6.