A day after passing a budget with overwhelming bipartisan support, the Connecticut legislature concluded its 2023 session Wednesday with the steady passage of bills in the House and a day-long filibuster by Republicans in the Senate.
Hours of stalemate on affordable housing and tenants’ rights in the legislature’s upper chamber stood in contrast to a session otherwise notable for its collaboration, typified by a $51.1 billion budget that included popular reductions in the state income tax and boosts in support for local schools.
In his first post-session remarks to the General Assembly since the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont applauded lawmakers for their bipartisan work. The governor compared the tenor of the Connecticut legislature to that of Congress and other states.
“You showed us a different way and I think you showed us the Connecticut way and I’m really proud of that,” Lamont said.
But the budget disappointed nonprofit service providers, higher education institutions, and advocates for universal school lunches among others who saw only modest funding increases in a plan that sends more than $3 billion to the state budget reserve fund.
Spending under the package was tightly limited by a set of fiscal guardrails, which lawmakers unanimously renewed at the outset of the session. Democratic legislative leaders eventually sought workarounds to allow for more spending. Lamont proved to be a stickler for the rules.
“If you don’t like the spending cap, say ‘I don’t like the spending cap,’ and you want to move away from it,” Lamont said Tuesday, noting the universal legislative support for the guardrails. “I’m just asking you to honor the very rules of the road you set for yourself.”
Concessions to moderation were not limited to the budget. Last week, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas voiced disappointment after he was forced to remove zoning reforms from a priority affordable housing policy because it lacked support.
Despite Democrats’ near supermajority numbers in both chambers, Rojas said Wednesday that Connecticut was more centrist than it appeared.
“For good and bad, we are a more moderate state than I think people recognize,” he said. “For me, sometimes that’s painful but, overall, I think it’s a good thing because we do work a lot together in Connecticut.”
The Senate, which approved the budget in a near-unanimous vote on Tuesday, was locked for most of the day Wednesday in a plodding debate over a study of how affordable housing should be defined in Connecticut.
The chamber came to an abrupt agreement on the bill around 9:35 p.m. It passed on a roughly partisan vote after which the Senate commenced quickly passing bills. Majority Leader Bob Duff said a long debate on the last day did not change months of working well with Republicans.
“One bill doesn’t define a session,” Duff said. “That did go on longer than I had hoped but we got it voted on, it’s now going to be the law of the land, and we’re going to get the rest of our business done by the end of session at midnight tonight.”
A multitude of progressive labor policies advanced out of committee this year only to stall later in the process. Ambitious proposals requiring predictable scheduling by large employers, minimum wage pay for tipped workers, and wage standards for rideshare drivers all failed to pass.
Most notably, legislation passed by the Senate to extend paid sick leave to employees of currently exempt small businesses failed in the House.
Although leaders were confident they could reach a deal to broaden the program while still exempting the state’s smallest businesses, some proponents and advocates preferred to try again next year rather than embrace further concessions.
Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said she was disappointed by the failure of many of her panel’s proposals but believed they would see more success if proponents were able to dispel misconceptions next session.
“Working families need to be taken care of in Connecticut,” she said. “Certainly everybody loves a tax cut and it is a progressive tax cut but I would like to have seen it balanced … by asking those that can afford to do more at the top.”
Not every issue was the result of bipartisan cooperation. Democrats passed a sweeping update to the state’s gun regulation with limited Republican buy-in. The bill faced stiff opposition in the Senate, where Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, delayed a vote for hours in a prolonged debate that did not resolve until around 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Meanwhile, updates to Connecticut’s election laws including a new, 14-day early voting period and a constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse absentee voting received significant opposition from the legislature’s Republican caucuses.
“Maybe it’s more social-type issues [on which the parties diverge],” House Speaker Matt Ritter said Wednesday. “But, admittedly, Republicans have voted for those things, which I think shows you that we still have a good … traditional Connecticut Republican hanging around in their caucus too.”
Republicans said their influence was most evident on the session’s fiscal issues. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora pointed to the budget’s adherence to fiscal constraints, elimination of vacant positions at state agencies, and its insistence that Connecticut higher education institutions find savings in their own operating budgets.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, an East Lyme legislator who serves the ranking House Republican on one of two budget-writing committees, told reporters that much of her party’s successes hinged on maintaining close working relationships with their Democratic colleagues.
“Let’s face it, we’re the minority party. If we don’t have good working relationships with our counterparts on the other side and be able to have those respectful conversations,” she said. “That allows you to at least have your ideas listened to and I think that’s really been key to what’s gone on this session.”
At the end of most sessions, the House finishes its work in a frenzied rush to pass as many bills as possible before the clock strikes midnight. On Wednesday, the chamber ran out of bills with more than an hour to spare.
While they waited for the Senate to send down more legislation, leaders used the time to praise each other for their cooperation. Ritter told the chamber that collaboration was unique to the 2023 session.
“So let that be our mark,” he said. “Let people look back and say ‘Those individuals in a time of strife and division in our country, for whatever reason – I don’t know why they did it – they said we are not going to mirror the antics, the disagreements, the non-American way of governing that has taken over our land and we’re going to work together even if we don’t agree.'”