By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — Democrats on a select committee of top legislative leaders voted Sept. 4 to sustain Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency powers to respond the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican members had urged Democrats to nullify the Democratic governor’s latest declaration of a public health emergency so General Assembly leaders and Lamont could negotiate a more collaborative response plan.
After nearly two hours of spirited debate, the 10-member select committee voted 6-4 along party lines to reject a Republican motion to veto a five-month state of emergency that Lamont declared Sept. 1.
The upshot is Lamont will continue to exercise emergency powers through Feb. 9 that allow him to modify or suspend state laws, regulations and requirements to respond to developments in the COVID-19 outbreak.
Through Sept. 4, there have been 53,265 cases of COVID-19 since the first Connecticut case was reported on March 8, approximately 11,300 hospitalizations and nearly 4,470 deaths.
Locally, the Naugatuck Valley Health District reported there have been 421 confirmed coronavirus cases in Naugatuck and 59 in Beacon Falls as of Sept. 3. There had been 37 confirmed deaths associated with coronavirus and four probable deaths in Naugatuck, according to the health district, and none in Beacon Falls.
The Chesprocott Health District reported Sept. 4 there have been 85 cases in Prospect and no coronavirus-related deaths in town.
Republicans objected Friday to what they called Lamont’s one-person, undemocratic rule, while Democrats argued the continuing coronavirus threat requires the governor retain latitude to quickly respond to changing public health conditions.
“There are times when we need to take swift and deliberate action as the government to protect the public health, and the executive branch is best equipped to do that,” said Sen. Mary Daughetry Abrams, D-Meriden, the Senate chairwoman of the Public Health Committee.
Republicans said the swift approval of a police accountability bill, changes to voting laws ahead of the Aug. 11 primary elections and health insurance legislation in a July special session demonstrated both the ability of the legislature to meet now and its agility.
GOP members also argued rejection of the public health emergency would not hamstring Lamont, or end any emergency orders because a concurrent declaration of a civil preparedness emergency would remain in effect.
Senate Minority Leader Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, contended a declaration of a civil preparedness emergency grants governors much wider powers than a declaration of a public health emergency.
There was a good deal of back and forth during the Sept. 4 meeting over the 67 executive orders that Lamont has issued under his emergency powers and other related administration directives.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, pressed Fasano, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and the ranking Republican members of the Public Health Committee to name what specific Lamont orders they would repeal.
Fasano and Klarides said they were unprepared for the question, but Ritter’s inquiry overlooked the bigger issue of the lack of legislature’s involvement in decision-making.
“There is way we can do this together. That doesn’t mean every single conversation and every issue that comes up, we all have to meet every day to discuss what we are doing next,” Klarides said. “This means we can focus on the public health issues in Connecticut without allowing one person to lead by fiat. People elected us to do this job. We should be doing it with him. In March, it was not appropriate. In September it is.”
Republicans said they are not saying the public health threat is over, or precautions are no longer necessary now.
“I am not suggesting that we tear off our masks and run down Main Street and have a victory parade because I think there is a serious potential for a resurgence of the virus,” said Rep. William A. Petit Jr., R-Plainville, the ranking House Republican on the Public Health Committee and a doctor.
Republicans complained that consultations between the executive and legislative branches dropped off after May.
“We need to change the communication that we are having with the governor’s office,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, the ranking Senate member of the Public Health Committee. “I think initially it was good. It has petered off dramatically, and I think that we do need to look at the science, and we do need to get that data, and that is something that has not been available us.”
Republicans said they have been heartened to hear Lamont last week commit to doing a better job of communicating and collaborating with the legislature on the COVID-19 response.
Klarides and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, clashed after Aresimowicz repeated Democratic charges that Republicans were challenging the public health emergency for political advantage in the Nov. 3 elections.
Aresimowicz observed the 2010 act that empowered the governor to declare a public health emergency passed 145-2 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate.
“I just wonder what has changed now in 2020 other than the first Wednesday in November,” he said.
Klarides later denounced the allegation. She also said the select committee only met Sept. 4 because Republicans had persisted in demanding a meeting.
The governor’s office had a measured response to the expected outcome of the Sept. 4 vote.
“Gov. Ned Lamont will continue to utilize his emergency powers thoughtfully and deliberately as he has since the start of this public health emergency,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s director of communications.
Elio Gugliotti contributed to this report.