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Lawmakers extend Gov. Ned Lamont's emergency authority

The state legislature convened a special session in Hartford on Wednesday and voted in favor of extending Gov. Ned Lamont's emergency authority through Sept. 30.

The Senate and House voted mostly along partisan lines following a debate on whether the COVID-19 pandemic is still enough of a threat to extend the emergency authority and allow the governor to issue executive orders in response. The House voted in favor 73-56, with 22 members absent or not voting, while the Senate voted in favor 19-15 with one member absent or not voting.

Lamont sent a letter to legislators last week in an attempt to persuade them to extend his emergency powers along with 11 standing executive orders regarding the pandemic. He has had emergency declarations extended since March 2020 and has issued hundreds of executive orders in the past 16 months, the vast majority of which have since expired.

"These orders are still needed to protect the public and continue critical measures to provide (health care) access and economic relief and respond to evolving changes," Lamont wrote. "They are also narrowly targeted to achieve specific goals that would otherwise be unachievable because of statutory or regulatory barriers that were not contemplated in the context of a highly transmissible and long-lasting disease outbreak when the statutes were passed."

Some of the standing executive orders allow the state Department of Public Health to require masking in certain contexts and permit the state Departments of Early Childhood Development and Education to determine policies related to COVID-19 leading up to the approaching school year. One of the orders would give tenants more time to repay back rent or obtain federal relief funding.

Republicans made several arguments against extending the emergency authority during floor debate on Wednesday. State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, criticized legislators for giving their power to the governor's office.

"There is no justification whatsoever for us to abdicate our constitutional duty to the governor. It is our job," he said.

Republicans and Democrats also debated whether it was necessary to extend emergency declarations in order to preserve federal funding.

"We're selling out the state for some more federal money," Dubitsky continued. "We're abdicating our constitutional duty. We are considering taking the cowardly act of deciding we are no longer going to be a state legislature (and) we are going to give all our power to the executive branch, just so we can get some more money."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, one of the few Democrats to vote against the extension, painted herself as "squarely in the middle" on this issue and took exception to Democrats saying that voting no would risk losing federal funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing.

"Thirty-three million dollars in SNAP and $2 million in housing are still available to this administration should we put forward a bill relative to that narrow vision of executive powers. The question before us is, do we think the executive branch needs to have broad powers?" Osten said. "Not whether we'll lose federal dollars. We will not. More than 20 states have narrowed the executive's responsibilities on executive powers and are getting the increased SNAP and increased housing (aid)."

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, also said Connecticut wouldn't lose out on federal dollars were it not to extend the governor's emergency authority.

"Several states have ended their emergency declarations and through applying directly to (President Joe Biden) — and I believe this governor has a pretty good line to our serving president — they have been given permission to access those federal dollars that we are told are needed to support the emergency rental benefits," she said.

Cheeseman and other Republicans, as well as Osten, argued that municipalities and boards of education should have decision-making power over issues related to COVID-19 at this point, rather than the governor's office or state departments.

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, echoed the comments of many Democrats who pushed back against the idea that the pandemic is over and who think, given the delta variant of the coronavirus, Lamont should continue to have emergency authority if COVID-19 in Connecticut were to worsen. He argued against Republicans' claim that this is a power grab by Lamont and said conservative residents are blowing the issue of emergency authority out of proportion.

"Conflating this to somebody being a dictator is not only wrong, it's insane," Needleman said.

Republicans made the point that Lamont shouldn't have the same leeway he had in March 2020, when very little was known about COVID-19.

"My opposition today is to this continuation of the delegation of authority, not because the pandemic is over. The pandemic is not over, but the pandemic is clearly waning," said state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. "We're clearly in a situation that we can together work with the administration to solve any problems that come up in a timely and adequate way."

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, put Wednesday's decision in perspective during an impassioned speech on the floor.

"These declarations give the governor the authority to shut down restaurants, to shut down gyms, to tell people to shelter in place, to tell businesses to close, to cancel schools, to stop high school and youth sports," he said. "That's what he has asked for, and that is what the majority is willing to do. We are in a far different place today than we were in March of 2020."

s.spinella@theday.com

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