The Connecticut General Assembly will begin its 2021 session Wednesday outside a state Capitol still closed to the public due to COVID-19. The forecast calls for a high of 40 degrees, winds of up to 15 miles per hour and perhaps 2,000 protesters.
“It could be kind of noisy out there,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Marquee issues like the budget, gambling expansion, a public option for health insurance and the legalization of marijuana will remain off stage as Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers mark the start of a session unlike any other.
The Senate plans to convene at 10 a.m. on blacktop on the south side of the Capitol, seated in a socially distanced oval meant to approximate the seating in the Senate, a 36-member body that generally refers to itself as “The Circle.”
The 151-seat House of Representatives will have no seats for its outdoor session. Members will stand on the north side of the Capitol, taking their oath of office from Secretary of the State Denise Merrill on a driveway at the top of a rise overlooking Bushnell Park.
Capitol police will maintain a security perimeter around the two outdoor sessions, but they have been told by organizers of three demonstrations to expect 2,000 protesters, Looney said.
One group is protesting the continued COVID restrictions. Another objects to a proposal repealing religious exemptions for school vaccinations. The third is expected to demonstrate in support of President Donald J. Trump on the day when the Congress is scheduled to formally accept the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
Lamont will not deliver a State of the State Address to a crowded joint session of the House and Senate, a staple of the first day of every two-year term of the General Assembly. Instead, a video address he recorded Monday will be broadcast.
At least two members of the House currently have COVID-19, and others are in self-quarantine after exposure, a reminder that the need for public-health precautions did not disappear with 2020, said House Speaker-designate Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, who is getting a kidney transplant Tuesday, said he plans on being sworn in Wednesday by Zoom, as is the plan for others in quarantine.
The outdoor sessions were deemed the safest venue for ceremonies opening the session, swearing in lawmakers and electing Ritter to his first term as speaker and Looney to his fourth as president pro tem.
Both leaders are supporters of legalizing sports betting, other forms of online gambling and the sale of recreational marijuana. The two leaders control what business comes before the House and Senate, but the prospects of gambling expansion and pot legalization are uncertain.
Gambling expansion will require Lamont negotiating a new compact with the state’s two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans. They hold exclusive rights to casino games in Connecticut.
Looney and Ritter said they are uncertain of the chances of legalizing marijuana. It already is decriminalized but cannot be sold with a prescription for medical uses. If passage is not possible, both leaders say they will seek a referendum on legalization through a constitutional amendment.
Democrats gained seats in November, winning majorities of 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate. Three senators and 21 House members will begin their first terms Wednesday.
New rules for a different time
The outdoor votes Wednesday will be limited.
The House plans to formally elect Ritter by a voice vote on the driveway, then watch him be sworn in by his father, Thomas D. Ritter, who was speaker for six years in the 1990s.
Ritter said he then expects to deliver the briefest acceptance speech ever offered by a new speaker.
The Senate hopes to elect Looney and adopt its rules by voice votes outdoors.
Lawmaking in 2021 will be a hybrid process, with hearings and committee meetings conducted via Zoom. Lawmakers’ access to the House and Senate chambers during debates and roll call votes on legislation will be limited.
Legislative leaders and staff worked over the holiday weekend — albeit by Zoom and phone — on rewriting the rules for a legislature that still relies on paper. Bills must be signed and filed, and they must be physically present when they are before a chamber for debate.
“I think our staffs did a good job of replacing a quill pen with a computer,” Looney said.
Looney, Ritter and the incoming House minority leader, Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said in separate telephone interviews Monday they had agreed in principle to the new rules.
Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the incoming Senate minority leader, could not be reached. Kelly previously had expressed reservations about the public participation in a session conducted virtually.
The legislature essentially ended its 2020 session in March, when the novel coronavirus was first detected in Connecticut and Lamont invoked sweeping emergency powers that allowed him to restrict social, commercial and academic life.
Brief special sessions in July and September were dress rehearsals for how the General Assembly could conduct a full session during a pandemic. Lawmakers addressed nearly empty chambers during debates; their colleagues watched and listened from offices.
House members could vote electronically from their offices in the Legislative Office Building. Members of the Senate, which lacks the technology for remote voting, took turns walking into the chamber to cast their votes during roll calls.
Looney said the Senate is considering updating its voting system to allow remote voting from the Legislative Office Building.
While the first months of any session are consumed by committee reviews of legislation, the House and Senate must vote in January on judicial reappointments, including a second eight-year term for Justice Andrew McDonald of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Democrats expected to nominate Rep. Miller for Senate opening
The Senate Democrats will lose one member. Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, was re-elected, but he will not take the oath for a new term. He is resigning to join the Lamont administration as a transportation adviser, requiring a special election in either the last week of February or the first week of March.
Reps. Patricia Billie Miller and Matt Blumenthal, both Democrats of Stamford, each quickly made exploratory phone calls about Leone’s seat.
Blumenthal declined comment Monday night and Miller could not be reached, but sources close to both lawmakers said that Blumenthal intends to yield to Miller, most likely guaranteeing her the Democratic nomination.
In special elections, party nominations are determined by the delegates to the previous nominating convention. There is no avenue to force a primary.
The law passed last year allowing anyone to vote by absentee to avoid exposure to COVID-19 has expired. Ritter said lawmakers are discussing whether the 2020 rule could be re-established by an executive order or a new law.