By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — With Democratic votes only, the full legislature July 14 extended Gov. Ned Lamont’s sweeping emergency powers to manage the state response to the COVID-19 pandemic through Sept. 30.
Lamont said following the House and Senate votes that this latest extension of his extraordinary authority is limited in both scope and duration so he can remain positioned to keep Connecticut safe.
The Democratic governor rejected assertions made in debates July 14 and in a state Capitol protest two days earlier that the coronavirus emergency is over now because the state outbreak has subsided to a manageable level.
“Well, nobody told that to COVID,” Lamont said during a stop at Thomas Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield.
Yet, Lamont and the governor’s office July 14 did not identify conditions for ending the public health and civil preparedness emergencies that Lamont first declared in March 2020. The two emergency statutes grant a governor the authority to set rules and modify or suspend state laws, regulations and requirements through executive order.
“We had a flare-up last fall,” Lamont said. “Let’s make sure we’re prepared.”
The governor requested another extension because he said he needed to retain the ability to quickly respond to evolving developments in the state’s outbreak, support the state’s ongoing vaccination program and maintain the state’s eligibility for emergency federal assistance.
The House voted 73-59 to continue Lamont’s emergency authority through Sept. 30. Nine Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the continuation. The Senate approved the extension 19-15, with four Democrats joining Republicans in opposition.
The fundamental disagreement in the debates was whether public health conditions 16 months into the state’s outbreak justified a continuation of the COVID-19 emergencies.
“I will be voting ‘yes’ today because we are still in a pandemic,” said state Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Meriden, chairwoman of the Public Health Committee. “So, to say we have a public health emergency seems perfectly acceptable to me, rational and the thing we should be doing.”
State Sen. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott, said the coronavirus crisis in Connecticut has passed.
“We don’t have to get into the daily statistics that have been released by the governor’s own administration to be aware that there is no current emergency — not an actual or true emergency in any case,” he said.
Sampson argued the positive test rate has been below 1% for weeks and, more significantly, hospitalizations and deaths attributed to COVID-19 have plummeted.
The governor’s office noted the nearly 1.3% infection rate reported July 14 was the highest percentage since May 25. The daily statistical report came out five hours earlier than usual, in time for the House and Senate debates.
Sampson also noted Lamont has said he is only looking to continue 11 executive orders, including ones concerning operational and safety rules in schools and child care settings, emergency procurement and mask mandates in certain settings.
“We are here in this room right now, and we can easily vote on each and every one of the executive orders that the governor is talking about,” he said. “He has even provided us a list of 11 executive orders. We can do that all in one day quite easily. We could do it today quite easily.”
Two of the dissenting Democrats were state Reps. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, and Michael DiGiovancarlo, D-74th District.
Linehan and DiGiovancarlo said they have no complaints with how Lamont has used his emergency powers, but they disagree he continues to need them at this stage in the outbreak.
“I don’t think it is 100% gone. I’m not going to be one of those people who say, ‘Hey, it’s done.’ It is not done,” said DiGiovancarlo, a first-term legislator from Waterbury.
Given the current public health conditions, Linehan said she believes the legislature needs to become more involved in the decision-making now. She said she also supports more local control going forward.
“It is not that I am against anything the governor has done,” she said. “I think he has ushered us through this pandemic and into the stages of recovery beautifully. I just think that we can do this as a legislature. I want to be more involved.”
Both Linehan and DiGiovancarlo said they believe local boards of education and superintendents should be making decisions concerning mask wearing and other pandemic precautions rather than Lamont, the state Department of Education and the state Department of Public Health.
Democrats and Republicans clashed over whether the legislature has been ceding too much authority to Lamont and whether the governor has overstepped.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, called Lamont’s requested extension a blatant power grab.
“He should know that being referred to daily as ‘King Ned’ is not a term of endearment,” Sampson said. “It is a message that something is greatly wrong.”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said Lamont has not been running amok, and he rejected GOP claims the legislature has not been a full partner in the pandemic response.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, acknowledged the public weariness of coronavirus mandates.
“I know people have COVID fatigue,” he said. “People want to continue returning to normalcy, and we are doing that.”
With infections, hospitalizations and deaths declining, DiGiovancarlo said the willingness of rank-and-file legislators to continue the COVID-19 emergencies also is waning after the fifth time.
“If the numbers start tanking and going horribly, then yes, but I think if it is three months down the road and we’re in much better shape, I’m not sure there will be a lot of appetite among legislators to extend it again,” he said.