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Tension as Gov. Lamont and lawmakers look toward end of pandemic emergency

lamont march 2020.jpg
MARK PAZNIOKAS
/
CT MIRROR
Gov. Ned Lamont announced in March 2020 that he was declaring a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Gov. Ned Lamont established a bargaining posture Wednesday towards lawmakers on the question of his emergency COVID-19 pandemic powers, making clear an intention to share the responsibility with the General Assembly.

Lamont said he will ask the legislature to codify in state law a short list of executive orders issued to manage an emergency that was declared 22 months ago and is set to expire on Feb. 15, a week after the legislative session begins.

About a dozen orders are necessary to maintain safety, such as a continued mandate on masks in the schools, and to allow the state to act quickly on the purchase of vital supplies, such as testing kits and protective equipment, he said.

“But I’d like to have the legislative imprimatur on that,” Lamont said. He added later, “I’d like to think the legislature will have an opportunity to vote on them — or otherwise.”

While some lawmakers have assumed that “otherwise” means Lamont will seek an extension of emergency powers if the legislature fails to act, the governor’s top aides insisted in interviews that the administration has no plans to seek an extension — a position that seems aimed at putting lawmakers in the position of either codifying certain executive orders or giving Lamont some continued, if limited, emergency powers.

“However, the governor is pretty clear that he wants there to be skin in the game, that if there’s a recognition that the legislature is unable to make these types of quick decisions relative to factors on the ground with the pandemic, then they need to be the ones who articulate that,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. “At this point, we do not anticipate a request from the executive branch for an extension.”

The question of what happens on Feb. 15 is a matter of tension between the Democratic governor and the Democratic majority and Republican minority in a General Assembly that has largely deferred to Lamont on COVID.

This is an election year for the governor and the General Assembly, and lawmakers generally are averse to taking on controversial issues in the three-month session in even years.

The first major expense of the reelection campaign Lamont opened two months ago is $48,500 for a baseline poll that would measure the voting public’s current stance towards pandemic restrictions.

Whether prompted by polls or principle, Lamont has steadfastly refused to consider new restrictions, leaving to mayors and other local officials responsibility for requiring masks at stores and other public venues.

Lamont has continued other controversial mandates, most notably a requirement of masks in the schools and vaccinations for state employees and certain health care workers.

Legislators could be asked in the first days of the 2022 session, which opens on Feb. 9 with the release of the governor’s budget proposals, to vote on what mandates should be imposed, continued or abandoned.

“Whatever we do is focused on keeping the people of Connecticut safe during this pandemic,” said Paul Mounds, his chief of staff. “And the big part as we get closer to the start of the legislative session and Feb. 15 is giving the legislature a firm understanding of what are the tools the governor needs to continue to keep Connecticut safe.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, in separate interviews, expressed a shared frustration with the absence of a firm action plan as time runs out on the current emergency declaration.

“You can’t drop this on the legislature on Feb. 10 and expect it to be done. It will not be done by the 15th,” Ritter said.

House Democrats held a virtual caucus on the coming session and the emergency powers for much of Wednesday.

Ritter said the challenges to lawmakers involve substance and process. Will the legislature hold hearings on which orders should be codified in law? Are there metrics that can be identified to determine when masks or vaccinations no longer are required?

“I have 96 people whose opinions are going to be varied on every single executive order, potentially,” Ritter said. “Do you run them as one big bill? Do you run them separately? All fascinating questions.”

Ritter said lawmakers may propose their own emergency measures, such as allowing the use of absentee ballots by voters concerned about the danger of COVID.

Candelora said time already is short, given that Republicans will want the administration to present data supporting the continuance of executive orders. One example, he said, is a desire to see evidence on the efficacy of masks in preventing the transmission of COVID among school children.

Lamont is not requiring adults to wear masks in indoor venues, yet he demands them for high school students; Candelora said that is an inconsistency that Lamont needs to justify.

“To suggest that we can codify any executive order within the next 30 days, assuming we started today, is unrealistic,” Candelora said. “And so the governor’s failure to interact with us sooner is creating a position where there are limited options.”

Lamont had unanimous support of Democratic and Republican legislative leaders in 2020 when he declared an emergency that empowered him to order the closure of businesses and require public health precautions.

Extensions of the original emergency declaration have become sharply partisan, with 10 House Democrats and two Senate Democrats joining Republicans opposed to the most recent extension in September.

Passage came on votes of 80-60 in the House and 18-15 in the Senate to continue Lamont’s emergency COVID-19 pandemic powers through Feb. 15, keeping mask and vaccine mandates in place.

Lamont spoke to reporters about the emergency powers Wednesday at a virtual press conference called to promote his expansion of the earned income tax credit. He offered examples of questions lawmakers might face.

“The legislature may say, ‘I don’t think we ought to be wearing masks in school. Or I don’t think a store should be able to tell people, to ask their vaccination status,’” Lamont said.

Without asking for the broad powers of an extension, Lamont is suggesting that lawmakers give him some flexibility on how to enforce whatever orders are codified in law, such as purchasing powers.

“I think there’s a narrow group of things going forward, where it will be helpful for us to have a little agility to be able to move fast,” Lamont said. One example was the test kits the administration recently purchased.

On the video calls was Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who defended the governor’s management of the pandemic and downplayed the potential for conflict.

“I think it will continue to be a cooperative effort, as it has been,” Looney said. “I think the governor has done a fine job in using his emergency powers to this point. He has been judicious and restrained in them and has not abused them.”

Keith Phaneuf contributed to this report.

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