Appropriations Committee co-chairs Rep. Toni Walker and Sen. Cathy Osten (seated) talk with ranking Republicans Sen. Eric Berthel and Rep. Tammy Nuccio Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A surprise amendment to dedicate funding for a charter school in Danbury forced difficult votes in the Appropriations Committee Tuesday and halted progress of a $51 billion state spending plan for more than two hours. 

The committee presented its legislative response to Gov. Ned Lamont’s two-year budget proposal after weeks of public hearings and closed-door negotiations. It eventually advanced that bill, but as lawmakers were combing through the plan in preparation for vote, Rep. Rachel Chaleski, a first-term Republican from Danbury, proposed an unusual amendment to alter the work-in-progress document.

The amendment caused the committee to immediately recess for negotiations before members reemerged for an emotional debate that forced some legislators to choose between supporting a long-sought charter school and adherence to a complicated process necessary to produce a budget plan with far-reaching consequences for all residents of the state. 

“So everybody understands, this is an extremely unusual process in Appropriations, in particular in the budget to call an amendment,” the panel’s co-chair Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said when Chaleski proposed directing funds to the Danbury school. 

“We all understand amendments but none of us really like amendments at this point in the process,” Osten said. “We like to talk about things afterwards.”

Chaleski apologized for the departure from legislative etiquette, but argued that traditional approaches had yet to deliver funding for the Danbury-based charter, the plan for which had been approved by the state Board of Education back in 2018.

The Appropriations Committee spending plan did include $9.7 million in funding for new charter schools, but the panel proposed to direct that money at schools in Middletown, New Haven, and Norwalk.

“While I appreciate the process and the comments about the process, the process hasn’t worked for Danbury in six years,” said Chaleski, who won her seat over a Democratic incumbent last year. 

“We’ve done all that we’ve been asked to do, through every hoop and if it’s going to take a flipped seat in the House or beyond, perhaps, and a rare amendment or two to get this through, then that’s what it’s going to take,” she said. 

When the committee breaked to discuss the amendment, Osten, a supporter of charter schools, asked Chaleski to reconsider.

“Quite frankly, I asked her to withdraw her amendment,” Osten told the panel. “There’s too much at risk in this budget… There are people here who are going to vote ‘no’ on this budget too and I say to them, when your issues are more important to you and you can’t look at the whole and you look at only one piece of this, then I cannot continue to support issues from people who don’t want to support the whole.”

Osten and her co-chair, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, opposed the amendment on process grounds.

“The amendment before us is so fricking difficult,” Walker said. She encouraged advocates of funding the school, many of whom had traveled to Hartford to watch the meeting, to continue their efforts. 

“Please, do not falter from any of this. Please keep your advocacy going. God has told you to do that,” Walker said. “I thank you for being up here and staring us in the eye and I thank you for advocating for all our children.”

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, called the amendment an expression of the democratic process. There was enough funding in the budget plan for majority Democrats to support the school, she argued.

“Most annoyingly, there are three charter schools that are being funded in this budget. There is one that is not and I want to know what is the obstacle to that one?” Nuccio said. “This here is a town that was promised a charter school. They’ve had funding in budgets throughout the years and it has continually been yanked.” 

Several Republican members expressed frustration after the committee’s leadership suggested the panel would vote down amendments from the minority party. 

“The fact that we’re willing to, on camera admit to the fact that Republican amendments can’t pass or don’t pass — I can’t even find the proper word to express, what the heck does that mean and why is it so dysfunctional?” Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said. 

Some Democrats on the committee said the amendment’s failure related to its timing rather than the party affiliation of its proponent. 

“Forget about being a Republican amendment, we don’t typically support surprise amendments,” Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, said. 

While many Democrats prefaced their votes in opposition with statements of support for charter schools, Currey, co-chair of the Education Committee, said the vote had little to do with the schools. 

“This is a result of decades of allowing a municipality to underfund their public school systems and get away with it,” he said. “I would love to say that is unusual but it’s not.”

Other Democrats joined Republicans in an effort to pass the amendment. Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said he could not continue to do “the easy thing” and vote with his party against advocates who continued to push for funding despite repeated setbacks. 

“I’m going to support this amendment and I’m going to do it because I’m tired of sitting down when I should be standing up,” Felipe said. 

The committee eventually voted 33 to 20 to defeat the amendment and resumed its discussion of the wide-ranging state spending package, which it later passed on a bipartisan, 40-12 vote. The last words on the amendment went to another freshman lawmaker, Rep. Melissa Osborne, D-Simsbury, who said making one surprise change invited requests for many more.

“If we start going line-by-line in this budget, every single member here would have an equally compelling argument for an equally compelling cause because there are a lot of unmet needs in this budget,” Osborne said. “That’s just where we are.”