After a somewhat truncated 2020 legislative session where handling constituent needs took up the lion’s share of time, the 2021 session saw a return to more intensive lawmaking. I am so pleased that we were able to pass significant economic recovery and worker protection laws, expand access to healthcare, and initiatives to protect the environment, further criminal justice reform, and pass the most bipartisan budget in recent memory.
To be sure, many good bills died in the process, and one could debate whether this was due to lack of political will or because of hours of filibustering by the minority party. Or perhaps a bit of both. Disappointing as some of the missed opportunities were – notably our failure to pass the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) – we did accomplish a great many things, and many of them were supported by both sides of the aisle.
The big healthcare bill that passed will remove the so-called “religious exemption” from reasons not to vaccinate children for the childhood diseases of measles, mumps, rubella and diphtheria. It kicks in Sept. 1, 2022, although as a compromise, we grandfathered in those students already in kindergarten through 12th grade who currently claim the exemption.
We also adopted broad health equity reforms, most notably by declaring racism a public health crisis, and we are requiring better data collection on race and ethnicity in healthcare. Although we passed an extension to Telehealth (including for veterinarians), which was a big priority in our district, I am disappointed we did not push through a true public option. Nor did the aid-in-dying bill get raised out of committee. (I will continue to work on these issues.)
Environment and Climate Change
Out of the more than 40 environmental bills proposed, some major ones made it through. For decades, lawmakers have tried toexpand the bottle bill and this year it passed. Raising the deposit to 10 cents and including more kinds of cans and bottles will improve our dismal redemption rate, and cities and towns will now get some money for the “nips” that litter our streets.
We passed the Long Island Blue Plan, and another significant bill that passed addresses climate change adaptation by increasing the scope of the Green Bank and allowing towns to establish stormwater authorities to help with resilience projects.
As Vice Chair of the Environment Committee, I was especially proud to have led the fight against toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food packaging and firefighting foam. These chemicals are known to cause a variety of health problems, from testicular cancer to fetal abnormalities. In addition to the ban, the measure, S.B. 837, requires DEEP to help town fire departments by taking back the toxic foams.
And while my bill to help prevent the spread of hydrilla in the Connecticut River did not make it out of committee, I am working with local experts on a new initiative for next year.
It’s no secret that Covid devasted our small businesses, especially restaurants. My colleagues and I made it a priority to expand and incentivize the state’s Small Business Express (SBE) Program by passing HB 6467, which implements extensions to SBE to support small businesses, distressed municipalities, and opportunity zones in Connecticut. Funding from this program will help small businesses in our district to create additional jobs, acquire assets, and expand business operations.
COVID-19 has increased our reliance on third party delivery sources – but that increased use has exposed some possible concerns with those delivery sources. Through HB 6602, we protected restaurants’ reputations and brands from abuse by third-party companies.
Another business-friendly bill we passed is SB 3, which expands the state’s tax credit program, requires the DECD commissioner to prioritize businesses’ applications that demonstrate a willingness to make jobs available to individuals meeting certain criteria; and requires DECD to develop a plan to advertise certification programs, job training programs, and entry-level manufacturing jobs.
Additionally, we passed HB 6440, which will offer a tax rebate to qualified businesses that create jobs. HB 6440 offers these incentives to businesses that expand or relocate in one of the state’s designated opportunity zones or distressed municipalities. This takes the burdens of expense off the taxpayers’ backs.
During the pandemic, a great many people reached out to my office for help filing for unemployment compensation. This process was long, arduous, and often frustrating. The increased burden on the Connecticut Department of Labor exposed serious need for improvement, and so HB 6344 would create the Office of Unemployed Workers’ Advocate to better assist unemployed individuals with processing claims and understanding available programs and benefits.
I have gone on record from the start of the pandemic saying I would refuse to call essential workers “heroes” if I did not back up that claim with a vote to protect them. SB 660 expands workers’ compensation benefits for certain mental health problems suffered by healthcare providers because of the pandemic.
Criminal Justice Reform
Although our district is not particularly diverse when it comes to race, many of the folks in our town care deeply about equity. We passed the “Clean Slate” bill, which automatically clears some convictions if people remain crime-free for seven or 10 years. We curtailed the use of solitary confinement and we addressed recidivism by helping incarcerated people stay in touch with loved ones with free phone calls, so that when they return to society, they have a support network. We added “coercive control” to the definition of domestic violence and helped victims of human trafficking by allowing them to ask the court to vacate certain crimes they committed while under the control of a trafficker.
Affordable housing is something needed by older folks looking to downsize, young people who cannot afford most rents, people who work in our towns but can’t afford to live here, and those who choose meaningful, but relatively low-paying jobs. So, I was pleased we addressed this through legislation that will make it easier to build accessory dwelling units (unless towns vote to opt out). We also redefined “character” to mean “physical site characteristics” rather than demographics, as that term was a dog-whistle for residents who were not white.
We increased social-emotional learning in schools, because the pandemic showed how much our children need support, and we established suicide prevention training in local health departments. We addressed crime on college campuses, too.
Expanded Voting Rights
Finally, we made it easier to vote in safety and ease. I was extremely pleased that a bill I introduced became HR 58. We passed legislation to bring the question of a Constitutional Amendment for early voting directly to the public in the form of a ballot initiative, and next session, by a simple majority, we hope to pass a similar referendum option on unconditional absentee ballots.
All legislative sessions are “mixed bags.” No one gets everything they want, and everyone needs to swallow a few bitter pills. That’s the nature of compromise. On balance, given the extraordinary nature of the world right now, we enacted some significant pieces of legislation that will enhance the quality of life in our wonderful state. And, less than one week out from the end of Session, my colleagues and I are already taking about unfinished business and where to focus our individual and collective energy next year.
State Rep. Christine Palm represents Chester, Deep River, Essex, Haddam in Connecticut General Assembly