House Legislators Extend Emergency Powers by Party-line Vote

The Connecticut House of Representatives voted 90-50 along party lines on Thursday to approve a bill that would extend Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency declarations for another month.

Citing the possibility of losing federal funds if the emergency declarations lapsed, Democrats advanced a bill to the State Senate that would extend Lamont’s emergency authority until May 20.

Pushing back on familiar complaints from Republican leaders that the legislature has abdicated its responsibility during the pandemic, State Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, chair of the  General Laws Committee, said that the governor’s emergency authority was granted by lawmakers in a state statute passed in the 1950s.

“This legislature, this body, and by extension, the people we represent – we have charged the governor with protecting the citizens of Connecticut,” D’Agostino said. “And we’ve done that by exercising out legislative power to charge him to protect the health and safety and welfare of the people of this state through two statutes that we passed decades ago that allow him to declare a public health emergency and a civil preparedness emergency.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he could not support extending Lamont’s emergency powers without a Republican amendment that would have given the legislature more oversight of executive orders and emergency declarations in the future.

Candelora said the current structure leaves Republican lawmakers out of decision making. Throughout the pandemic, Lamont has consulted with Democratic legislative leaders, but Republican leaders have often complained about being left out of those discussions. Candelora said he expected this legislative session to focus on COVID, and not on issues like bottle deposits and a statewide property tax, which he said can wait.

“My hope moving forward is that we are going to have a conversation about how executive orders are going to be granted into the future, and how the current executive orders are going to be reviewed and disposed of, or codified, by this legislature,” Candelora said.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said there is not a single state in the U.S. that has abandoned its emergency declaration, and that doing so would mean losing out on federal funds from FEMA, and for federal aid programs like SNAP.

“I’ve heard many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle talk about ceding our authority, that we aren’t doing our job,” Rojas said. “But for the past three months, we have been meeting, albeit remotely. We’ve been considering bills, having public hearings – we have been doing our job.”

Republicans seek long-term changes

State Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, proposed an amendment that would require the legislature to approve any future emergency declaration every 30 days after it is issued by the governor. It would have also required the legislature to review and approve or reject all of Lamont’s executive orders by April 21.

Ending the emergency declaration would end executive orders issued by Lamont that currently ensure public health officials have flexibility to roll out the COVID vaccines, and allow any qualified person to administer a vaccine.

Perillo’s amendment was voted down along party lines, 50-89.

Perillo said the state needs to begin the process towards normalcy, and that he objected to the process, rather than the content of the governor’s orders.

Perillo’s amendment would also have allowed the six legislative leaders to approve or reject executive orders by a majority vote, and to do the same for emergency health declarations with a majority vote of the legislative leaders plus the leaders of the public health committee.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said she saw the amendment as being about the logistics of how the legislature gets “involved in governing this state again.” It recognizes the role the governor has to play in making quick decisions during emergencies, but also recognizes that lawmakers deserve to have their voices heard, she said.

“We’ve got smart people here,” Cheeseman said. “Surely we are not saying that only the executive branch is smart enough to figure out how we should be deciding to get out of this pandemic.”

D’Agostino opposed the amendment, saying that every time in the past that the emergency statutes have been amended, it’s been through a more careful and deliberate process than a floor amendment. He said the statutes that authorize the governor’s emergency powers could be examined, but not on the floor of the House on a Thursday afternoon.

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