CT Examiner spoke with Joe Courtney, Connecticut’s 2nd District representative, about his legislative priorities heading into the lame duck session and the next administration.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Stimulus and the Lame Duck
CT EX: What are the prospects for a stimulus package and COVID relief bill in the new Congress?
COURTNEY: First off, we’re still seeking to get a COVID relief bill done in the lame duck session. No one’s given up on that, and Plan A is still to get relief out as soon as possible. COVID is picking up speed, and there really are lingering gaps that need to be filled, so we don’t have the luxury of waiting until Inauguration Day.
In terms of what a relief bill would address, there are lots of very specific issues that would have meaningful local ramifications for the district. For example, the Families First Act has language that says private health insurance plans can’t impose copayments for COVID testing, but the administration issued a guidance saying that this was still subject to a doctors’ order.
There are large testing sites like Dodd Stadium where people can drive up and get free tests, but I called yesterday and it was an hour and a half wait. For fire stations or EMT ambulance services or police stations, they need testing onsite, and we need to create clarity so people won’t gum up the works by insisting on a doctor’s letter. This is not a resource issue, it’s just untangling access for the people we should really be enabling, like first responders. Folks are really looking for clarity on this.
The CARES Act did provide a big boost in terms of testing, but tracing follow-up is still very uneven. The vaccine announcement was tremendous, spectacular news, and it’s made people particularly proud of southeastern and shoreline Connecticut because of our folks in Groton at Pfizer. Still, though, we have a big task ahead, which is to create a vaccine supply chain.
Rep. John Larson and I announced a bill this week that would use the Defense Production Act to get the Defense Logistics Agency to make sure we get that supply chain so the vaccine can be kept at 80 degrees below zero. The vaccine is, at best, still months away from being widely distributed, so we need to keep our foot on the gas in terms of testing, tracing and treatment in the meantime.
CT EX: As in-person schooling across the state begins to shut down, what role can the federal government play in helping Connecticut’s schools?
COURTNEY: Yesterday, I was up at a couple of elementary schools where I live. They’re doing an amazing job, but having to retrofit everything about the way schools operate to virtual or hybrid teaching has been expensive, not to mention exhausting or teachers. Putting fiscal pressure on public education at a time like this is bad from a financial point of view and bad from an educational standpoint, since kids are going to end up backsliding.
A bill of mine, the Impact Aid Coronavirus Relief Act, cleared the Senate yesterday and is now on Trump’s desk. The bill allows school districts to use their headcount from last school year on their Impact Aid applications, so that schools that have lost kids or are struggling to get paperwork done don’t miss out on this aid. It will affect Ledyard, Groton and Montville, which get Impact Aid because of military kids and tribal kids in their school system. Kids of migrant workers will also be affected.
This is the phase of COVID relief we’re in right now, where we’re just trying to stabilize things as much as possible, and this will hopefully eliminate the loss of revenue some of these schools are facing.
CT EX: Do you see potential to pass an infrastructure bill as part of COVID relief and stimulus?
COURTNEY: Infrastructure really is the number one way to get us out of just stabilization and survival, which is where we are right now with the pandemic still in full throttle, and into growth mode. Investing in infrastructure is the most effective way to accomplish that. We recently got funding to work on the Old Saybrook Bridge, but it took three years of pooling funding into that account to get to a place where they could even do partial work. We need something much bigger.
In July, the House passed the Moving Forward Act, which has so far died in the Senate, but was a $2 trillion bill that invested in everything from roads to rail, bike paths, alternative transportation, and highway safety.
Control of the Senate
CT EX: Control of the Senate is still up for grabs. How much does the Georgia runoff impact whether legislation like the Moving Forward Act can pass?
COURTNEY: The Georgia runoff matters a lot. Once the smoke clears on the presidential race, which I think we’re getting closer to, the whole world is going to be focused on Georgia. However, McConnell seems to have moved since election day on COVID relief, and infrastructure historically has always been a bipartisan priority.
I think the US is falling behind in terms of infrastructure, and the scope of infrastructure and stimulus bills will certainly hinge on control of the Senate, or whether or note Senator McConnell, if he continues to be in charge, continues to obstruct things.
CT EX: How optimistic are you about renewable energy in the district as a driver of economic recovery?
COURTNEY: In Connecticut’s energy sector, in terms of raw employment, most jobs are already in renewables. We don’t drill for oil or mine in eastern Connecticut, but we do have people in fossil fuel delivery employment throughout the district, but even the people in those jobs are already reading the tea leaves and changing their priorities.
There are a lot of existing renewable energy projects happening in the district, particularly with solar and geothermal energy. One of the more exciting projects is up in Fort Hill, where they’re putting the finishing touches on a bio digester project that recirculates methane gas emitted from manure into power. It’s the first real bio digester on a dairy farm in the state, and others are now lining up in the same direction.
If we could get renewable energy tax credits extended, since they’re due to expire soon, it would really get some of the obstacles out of the way for projects like the bio digester.
CT EX: Reforming the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — which regulates quotas for fishing different species in different parts of the coastline — has been a priority for you. Do you see changes to that law coming in the reauthorization?
COURTNEY: We recently had a regional Zoom hearing on Magnuson–Stevens, and the chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Jared Huffman, was really blown away by the testimony. Existing bureaucracy is just not aligned with the real dynamic change happening as far as the species populations on our shores and the fleet of fishermen that are hanging on. It’s a to-do item for me, and I don’t have a prognosis yet for a bill during the lame duck session. We had a little flurry after the hearing, and then the election took over everything, so I’m not sure what will happen. But I know enough fishermen, and it’s not just a job for them, it’s a calling. They’re going to find any way possible to survive, but a reformed Magnuson–Stevens could really help.