HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers moved closer Monday toward extending Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic for the sixth time, an issue that has become more contentious with each extension.
The House of Representatives voted 80-60 in favor of extending Lamont's renewed declaration of public health and civil preparedness emergencies. Ten Democrats joined all of the Republicans in opposition. The Senate is scheduled to vote on Tuesday.
Republican legislators, the minority party in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, argued there is no longer a need to grant Lamont the extraordinary powers, considering the state's relatively high vaccination rates and other metrics.
“We are on a merry-go-round.” said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “There is no standard for these extensions.”
But Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders said his powers should be extended until early February, when the next regular legislative session begins, so pandemic-related issues such as booster shots, masking requirements, vaccinations for children and nursing home residents can be dealt with quickly.
“Look, we’re doing this to keep you safe,” Lamont said. He noted that he has sought the input of the General Assembly. If the extension is passed by the Senate on Tuesday, as expected, the top six legislative leaders will have until the end of the week to veto any of the roughly 10 executive orders Lamont wants to continue, according to House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
Dozens of parents, many angry about Lamont's executive order requiring face masks be worn in schools, rallied outside the state Capitol during the debate, shouting slogans like, “Don’t Ned on me” and “Our kids can’t breathe.” Earlier in the day, some attempted to enter the state Capitol building without masks but were told to leave if they didn't wear face coverings.
Candelora acknowledged that a “very vocal minority” of Connecticut residents is taking issue with Lamont's executive orders in what's become a political fight. But he said some of those residents “end up becoming bullied or marginalized in the positions that they take," including people with compromised health situations such as cancer patients with concerns about getting vaccinated or parents with young children worried about how they can learn language skills with a mask.
“And we don’t have that debate or that conversation because this yes vote today is going to continue to allow the governor to make these decisions in the dark, in back rooms without the public input that our founding fathers and so many people fought for there to be that deliberative process,” he said.
But House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, defended Lamont's request for the emergency authority extension, noting how COVID-19 is unpredictable and the vaccines continue to undergo evaluation.
“Connecticut has benefited from the steady leadership of Governor Lamont to respond as he felt he needed to respond. He has not acted like a king. He has not acted like a tyrant. Nor have we abdicated our responsibility as an equal branch of government to work with the governor to meet the challenges that we have faced since March of 2020,” Rojas said, arguing that the drawn-out, deliberative legislative process is not appropriate for some of the actions that need to be made quickly.
Meanwhile, Ritter issued a rare, stern warning before the opening of the special legislative session to lawmakers who break the rules and don't wear a face mask when they're not addressing the chamber. Ritter threated to “swiftly" end the longstanding tradition of unlimited debate in the House of Representatives and “call the question,” essentially ending debate.
“The only way I would ever agree to end this tradition is if people are flaunting our public health rules, looking for some sort of provocative response. And I will not oblige in that, Every legislator must have the ability to feel safe in this chamber," said Ritter. Later in the day, he praised lawmakers for having a civil debate.
Ritter's call for lawmakers to abide by the masking rules came on the heels of a recent public meeting on COVID-19 vaccination mandates, held by members legislature's conservative caucus, where most of the lawmakers and members of the public did not wear masks inside the Legislative Office Building.
In other coronavirus-related news in Connecticut:
SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS
While there were a few isolated incidents, Lamont said most school bus drivers showed up to work on Monday after there were concerns that hundreds might not get the COVID-19 vaccine or else get tested in time to meet the state's deadline.
“Thankfully the overwhelming majority of school bus drivers showed up to let kids get back to school for in-person learning,” he said.
Lamont said his office was contacted by a couple of communities that needed a few extra school bus drivers on Monday. He said some qualified state drivers were made available to towns to transport students with special needs.
"Hopefully we got that balanced," he said. “It probably wasn’t perfect.”
Meanwhile, Lamont said it will take a couple days to sort through the vaccination cards, required weekly testing results for the unvaccinated, and medical and religious exemption requests submitted by state employees in time for Monday's deadline. The governor said tens of thousands of workers uploaded their information over the weekend to a third-party app.