Democrats allow Lamont to extend emergency powers until February

Photo of Ken Dixon

Republican leaders of the General Assembly charged Friday that it is unacceptable to allow Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont five more months of unlimited freedom in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Democrats used their majority on a 10-member legislative panel to allow Lamont’s extension of emergency powers in the public health crisis that were established in a 2010 law and were set to expire on Sept. 9.

“I believe that the governor has been both responsible and circumspect in the use of his powers, ever since March,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, reading from Lamont’s extension of the public health and civil preparedness emergencies.

If the power and orders were to expire next week, the state would be “unprotected” in the pandemic, Looney said “Every order that the governor has in place, limiting attendance and crowds in certain facilities would end,” Looney warned. “Bars could open immediately. There would be no regulation, no control. We would be in the position of some of the southern and western states that have seen a rapid spread in the virus, in those states.”

“Until we have a vaccine, there is no over,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee. “There is no opportunity to relax.”

Steinberg said that while the governor is leading the effort, lawmakers are taking an active part.

“We have been on multiple weekly calls,” Steinberg said. “We have had public hearings. We’ve had conversations with the Department of (Public) Health, the Department of Social Services, but most importantly with people on the ground, people who have been directly affected by this.”

The 6-4 party-line vote culminated an hour-and-45-minute meeting in which Republican leaders vented grievances, charging that Lamont has usurped the role of the legislature in tackling the pandemic. And a ranking member of the Public Health Committee, Rep. William Petit, R-Cheshire, complained that at this point in the pandemic, state residents want to “gain back some of our personal liberties.”

The vote was 6-4 against House Minority Leader Themis Klarides’ motion to reject the extension. Democratic leaders warned that if the vote succeeded, dozens of public health measures ordered by Lamont since early March would expire next Wednesday, possibly throwing open the state to a resurgence of the virus responsible for the deaths of 4,468 residents.

Klarides, R-Derby, stressed the need for more legislative collaboration with the governor at this point in the pandemic, when infection rates are less than 1 percent of those thousands of people tested every day.

“This is about working together to figure out a way to limit the ability, which is right now almost unlimited in regards to anything, any law, any subject matter in regards to this state,” Klarides said of Lamont.

The meeting of the awkwardly named Declaration of Public Health Emergency Committee took place in a large meeting room in the Legislative Office Building, with the participants spread out in a socially distant manner, with lawmakers wearing their masks for most of the meeting, in which Republicans aired weeks of pent-up complaints.

Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said that the Republican charges seem to be tailored for the current legislative election season. “I understand what’s happening here, because of what’s going to happen a couple of months from now, at the election box,” Aresimowicz said. “I will vote for safety.”

“We did not like the idea of unlimited broad-brush powers by the governor to continue,” Klarides replied. “I am not going down the road of who’s playing politics here. We have told you point blank more than once, that ours caucuses are not happy about these broad executive powers.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, challenged the four Republicans to name a Lamont rule that they would like overturned. “What emergency order is too broad?” he asked the group. “Can anyone name an executive order they would like repealed?”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano and Klarides said they were unprepared to discussion the details of particular orders they might oppose. “We are asking to go through these orders,” Klarides said, offering that Connecticut’s order prohibiting evictions appears much broader than the federal guidelines of President Trump that have income requirements.

“This should be a conversation of all of us,” Klarides said. “We should all have been doing that, the legislature with the executive branch.” She added that attempts by Republican lawmakers to secure the targets needed for the state to go into a Phase 3 reopening, which would allow for more indoor seating in restaurants and the reopening of bars, have been withheld by Lamont.

“I also would challenge the notion that only Gov. Lamont can keep us safe,” Fasano, R-North Haven, said. “This legislature can keep us safe. This legislature can make the right decisions.”

Fasano and Klarides charged that communication with the governor, while good during the early days of the pandemic back in March, April and May, deteriorated in June and July and August.

“We need our voices to be heard,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, ranking member of the Public Health Committee. “Right now Connecticut is being ruled by one person.”

“There’s only one option,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “The one option is to continue along the path we’ve been on for the last six months. We are in an unprecedented time. We’re in a time where we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months from now, in 10 months from now or a year from now. We take this a little bit at a time. We have learned that we need to continue to allow the nimbleness of these emergency powers, so the governor can make decisions to keep the people of Connecticut safe and healthy.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT