The Zoom calls last as long as four hours. They link two Democrats and two Republicans assigned to craft a bipartisan police accountability bill in the midst of the pandemic that forced Connecticut lawmakers from the State Capitol in March.
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A member of the quartet tracks the status of the various provisions on a color-coded spreadsheet: Consensus items are marked green; yellow signifies issues unresolved, but not unsolvable; red is reserved for ideas at a stop.
Later this week, their colleagues are expected to get a first look at the draft of the bill they produced in response to the police killing of George Floyd for consideration in a special session expected to begin as soon as July 15 under circumstances that are still evolving.
Only two things are clear: There will be a substantive police accountability bill, and a separate measure clarifying in statute the ability of voters to use absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic if they are uncomfortable going to the polls in November.
Uncertain is whether the agenda will grow to address broader social and economic justice issues, COVID’s impact on state finances, or any of the many items in progress when the regular session was suspended and then ultimately adjourned without further action.
“It’s going to be a short session in the middle of a COVID crisis,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, who has urged lawmakers to stay focused. “But we’ll see what we can get done.”
Reinventing the legislature in the time of the coronavirus
A more fundamental question: How will the legislature function?
House and Senate leaders are contemplating changing the rules to allow limited remote voting, at least for the 151-member House, whose computerizing voting system and tally board were updated in the previous term.
The new technology allows the lower chamber’s members to cast votes from their offices in the adjacent Legislative Office Building. The Senate system was not updated, and voting most likely will be done by every senator pushing a button in the chamber.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said debates and votes most likely would be choreographed to limit the number of legislators in the chamber at any one time, holding the legislature to the same COVID-19 restrictions as faced by businesses.
“We’re looking at models of what other states have done. Members may come in and vote in shifts,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Another possibility is to have the 36 senators meet in the larger House chamber, Looney said. Whatever is decided, the plan is not to have the two chambers meet on the same day, with the exception of the opening day when new rules must be adopted.
Getting the rules right is crucial. Passage of rules for any session requires a simple majority, but no amendments are possible without a more difficult two-thirds vote.
“There are many ways we can manage this,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
A detailed bill on police accountability
The quartet at the center of the effort to produce a bipartisan police bill are the leaders of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee: the Democratic co-chairs, Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven and Rep. Steve Stafstrom of Bridgeport; and the ranking Republicans, Sen. John Kissel of Enfield and Rep. Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck.
“There is a lot of mutual respect and even friendship among the four of us,” said Stafstrom, the lawmaker who devised the spreadsheet with the stoplight marking system. “I’m a firm believer that when all parties are at the table, the end product is a better product — whether that means everybody votes for a bill or not.”
Leadership told them to be prepared for a special session on July 15 or 22, and they already have delivered a proposal that is now being drafted as formal legislation. They have logged 23 hours or so Zoom.
“We’ve been encouraged to act very quickly,” Kissel said.
None of the four were willing in interviews last week to identify the items marked green or red, but they readily outlined the parameters of the bill: use of force policies, such as a likely ban on the use of chokeholds; training and accreditation of police; investigating use of deadly force; and recruitment of a more diverse police force.
Some of the more controversial measures discussed include revisiting when police should enjoy immunity from being personally sued for official actions and whether the legislature should bar the ability of police unions to negotiate contracts limiting the disclosure of complaints or ability to terminate officers.
Legislators say a bipartisan vote would make a strong statement to the police and public about the political commitment behind any reforms. And there is a political desire among most lawmakers to go on record in support of these reforms.
“Given the political winds right now, I think everybody wants to have their hands on this, if possible,” Winfield said.
“We’ve been entrusted and directed to attempt to reach a bipartisan proposal, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Rebimbas said. “I think the thing that makes this work among the four of us is the mutual respect we have.”
But there are tensions. There is a political divide, a general sense that Democrats want a bill that goes deeper than what might be acceptable to many Republicans. Winfield and Looney said separately that a bipartisan vote is preferable, but not necessary.
“The substances takes precedence,” Looney said. “I would like to see a bipartisan bill, but not if it had to be watered down to get it to be bipartisan.”
“I hold the same opinion I’ve always held on any of these bills: The primary thing is the policy,” Winfield said. “If we can make it bipartisan, that’s great. But the policy remains primary to me.”
Winfield added, however, that there is a limit to what the legislature can undertake in a special session during a pandemic.
“People think we can fix every part of this, and that’s not true. You don’t get to tackle everything,” Winfield said.
Klarides and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said it is possible to produce a substantive policy on police accountability that would attract significant GOP support.
“As of now, they are in a good place,” Klarides said.
“We’ve done a lot of controversial things in the past that were bipartisan,” Fasano said. “I don’t see this as any different.”
Absentee ballots and the potential broader agenda
Another element of the special session agenda is a bill that effectively would extend through November an executive order by Lamont that permits the use of absentee ballots in the August primary by anyone reluctant to go to the polls during the pandemic.
The state of emergency granting Lamont sweeping executive powers expires on Sept. 9, so the governor says a state law is necessary for easier absentee voting in November. Passage of a law also would render moot a lawsuit challenging the use of the ballots and another trying to force the state to allow their use in November.
Represented by the ACLU, the Connecticut NAACP and the League of Women Voters sued Connecticut in federal court last week, saying that the failure to allow the use of absentee ballots by voters deemed at risk essentially denies them a right to vote.
One of the plaintiffs is an 88-year-old woman who does not meet any of the limited statutory criteria for obtaining an absentee ballot.
Republicans are also ready to discuss the budget ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, Klarides said.
“Whether you like it or not, there is nobody who can disagree that we have a serious budget problem,” Klarides said.
Some Democrats are eager to discuss other issues, including whether there should be a presumption for some workers that a COVID-19 diagnosis is work-related and should be covered by workers’ compensation. And there is a push to widen the session to cover a broad range of social justice issues.
Senate Democrats outlined a “Juneteenth Agenda” two weeks ago that would tackle housing segregation, disparities in health and education, and the lack of economic opportunity in many urban neighborhoods. Forty House Democrats in the Progressive Caucus have endorsed the agenda.