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With unusual start to session, lawmakers hope to be more involved in day-to-day operations of state amid pandemic

Hartford — Following a year marked by unparalleled events, the Connecticut General Assembly opened the 2021 legislative session in unusual fashion Wednesday, with the swearing-in of legislators happening outside the state Capitol on a crisp but sunny day as protesters, many of them opposing pandemic restrictions, gathered and shouted from barricades around them.

“I hereby call this chilly and unusual session to order,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said in opening the 2021 legislative session.

The first order of business was to vote on rule changes to enable the legislature to operate virtually, as the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives in Connecticut, rages on.

While Democrats made gains in the November election, now holding majorities of 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate, Republicans increased their strength in southeastern Connecticut.

Of the 11 House seats in the region, six are held by Republicans with Stonington Detective Greg Howard’s win over former Democratic state Rep. Kate Rotella in the 43rd District.

Local Republicans said after being sidelined since March, when Gov. Ned Lamont assumed control of the state’s response to the pandemic with sweeping emergency powers, they hope the legislature will get the opportunity to be part of some of the decision-making, including how the latest round of federal coronavirus aid is spent.

Republican state Sen. Heather Somers of Groton, who represents the 18th District, wants some of the federal money to be used to “shore up” the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has been depleted given the record number of people out of work due to the pandemic.

Concerned that the virtual session will inhibit robust public participation, particularly on controversial proposals such as repealing the religious exemption for vaccines in schools, Somers said those issues should be set aside if the Capitol remains closed to the public.

“Not everyone has access to a computer or competent broadband,” she said.

Somers is against repealing the religious exemption for vaccines. She said she believes educating the public on the safety and efficacy of vaccines is a better approach, and has heard the same from public health officials who have told her it’s more effective to educate versus “mandate with a hammer.”

Democratic Sen. Norm Needleman, who represents the 33rd District, was absent from opening day. He said in a text message Wednesday that he hasn’t been feeling well and is awaiting the result of a COVID-19 test. On top of that, he said he is helping with funeral arrangements for a close friend in Florida who died Wednesday morning after contracting COVID-19.

“We are going to work on easing the pain of this pandemic and making sure that people don’t fall through the cracks in terms of income, food and housing and that we do everything to help keep them safe and keep the economy going,” Needleman said of his expectations for this session.

Referring to the droves of protesters gathered outside the Capitol, Republican Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme said starting the session “amidst voices of dissent impresses upon me we have to work to do to heal the state and the nation.”

Formica, who was named deputy minority leader in the Senate, said he plans to “advance the causes of our party and our principles and do so in a way that extends across the aisle to find common solutions.”

The owner of Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant in East Lyme, Formica said the legislature has to work on opportunities to grow the state’s economy, which has been strained by the pandemic.

“One of the biggest differences between this recession and the last one is that the underlying economy is so much better,” he said. “We need to unleash that.”

Given the virtual session, there's been talk of limiting the business taken up by the legislature, including the number of bills introduced. Undeterred by that, Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten, who represents the 19th District, said she is planning roughly 70 proposals, including addressing visitation rights in nursing homes, which have been ravaged by the pandemic.

Osten, joined by other Democratic lawmakers in the region, plans to propose legislation creating a new pandemic preparedness office that would focus on testing, emergency stockpiles of equipment and the continuity of social services. 

While Osten approves of how Lamont has handled the pandemic, going forward, there should be a more collaborative approach involving the legislature, including over how federal coronavirus relief is spent, she said.

As co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Osten will have a key role in the debates over the state budget.

Sports betting and marijuana

In his address Wednesday, Lamont indicated he intends to pursue legalization of online gaming and sports betting and of recreational marijuana for adult use, which many Democrats see as revenue generators for the state. Osten is supportive of both proposals.

The newly elected Rep. Howard of Stonington said he is "split" on the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana. His work in law enforcement has shown him that marijuana is not a detriment to society in the way alcohol or crack cocaine is, he said, but with the legalization of marijuana, drug cartels have "naturally switched their product" and harder drugs like heroin are increasingly turning up on the streets. He also noted the need for training to help law enforcement officials detect when someone is impaired from marijuana use.

Howard said he hopes the legislature can work to get the state past the pandemic and reopen businesses. The father of two young sons, he said he'd like the legislature to come up with a plan to fully reopen schools, as he worries about the impacts, including the lack of socialization, of keeping kids out of the classroom. He said he hopes teachers would be among those receiving the next round of COVID-19 inoculations in the state to enable schools to fully reopen safely.

Democratic Rep. Anthony Nolan of New London, who represents the 39th District, said he hopes schools can fully reopen "in the not-so-distant future." He raised the idea of using "places other than schools for educational purposes."

"There's empty buildings in New London that we could use for classrooms," he said.

A New London police officer, Nolan said if there were a vote tomorrow, he'd vote against legalizing marijuana. As a school resource officer, he has advised kids against marijuana use, but that becomes a conflicting message when the state is making money off the sale of the drug, he said. Likewise, he said, how can the state legalize marijuana without a plan to release people from prison who are incarcerated for sale of marijuana and similar charges.

Nolan worries the pandemic and the state budget will overshadow social and racial justice issues that deserve the attention of the legislature. He specifically mentioned affordable housing and reforming zoning regulations as proposals that will help combat Connecticut's status as one of the most segregated places both racially and economically.

j.bergman@theday.com

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