HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed protections for abortion providers and gave more power to libraries facing book challenges — and they did it with Republican support.
Bucking the partisan rancor seen in other legislatures this year, Connecticut lawmakers on Wednesday night wrapped up what's been one of the most bipartisan legislative sessions in recent memory. And they're crediting old fashioned relationship-building, a willingness for compromise, a healthy budget surplus and a strict adjournment deadline.
“ Oregon hasn’t met in a month because the senators have just left the building. Think about that,” Democratic House Speaker Matthew Ritter said hours before Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont addressed lawmakers in a traditional midnight speech, lauding them for a “job well done” and for working collaboratively.
“We’ve talked about it. We’ve tried to create a culture in the House whereby people have to learn to compromise, not only with Republicans, but with each other in their caucus," Ritter said. “We have insisted on people sitting down, working it out."
Ritter, who acknowledged the state's strict session deadline also forces the part-time Legislature to compromise, took a moment during the final hours Tuesday night to praise his members for their collegiality and commitment to public service during a time of “strife and division” in the country. He credited them for not mirroring “the antics, the disagreements, the non-American way of governing that has taken over our land” and instead working together even when they didn't agree.
“We sent a message that there's a way to do it and we're going to do it again next year,” Ritter said to loud cheers and applause.
Besides Oregon, where hundreds of bills are languishing amid a partisan stalemate, there have been examples of discord this year across the country. Lawmakers have expelled colleagues in Tennessee, and barred a representative from the Montana House floor.
In contrast, Connecticut Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday were still celebrating the strong bipartisan support for the budget finalized Tuesday, though there were some disagreements about spending levels for social nonprofit service agencies and how much to cut taxes.
“This was probably the most amenable session," said Republican Eric Berthel, who has represented the most conservative Senate district since 2017. The top Senate Republican on the budget-writing and education committees, Berthel said he feels comfortable defending his vote to his constituents, even though they might criticize him for voting for a budget Democrats supported too.
However, Berthel acknowledges if Connecticut didn't have a robust surplus things might be different.
Republican Rep. David Rutigliano, who helped craft a bipartisan bill this year that fixes Connecticut's recreational marijuana law, something he and other GOP lawmakers opposed in 2021, said he's learned from the top Republican and Democratic House leaders, who are on friendly terms, that relationship-building is key, especially for a minority Republican.
“They tell us if you want to get anything done, you have to have a relationship. You can't do a lot of gotcha stuff. You can't be kind of a jerk and you have to talk,” he said. “Listen, (Democrats) are in charge, we get it. But it's better when we're in the room. Our ideas aren't all bad."
Despite talk of bipartisanship this session, there have been mostly partisan votes, including on election-related matters and guns.
And not every advocate is thrilled with this year's political compromises, especially when it comes to the state budget. Groups working on behalf of low-income workers contend the plan, which was limited by a spending cap, shortchanges residents still financially struggling from the pandemic.
“Nonpartisanship has its merits, but when it comes at the expense of real hardworking people, from our perspective, it becomes problematic,” said Pastor Rodney Wade, a member of Recovery for All, a coalition of unions, religious groups and other community organizations. He points out how striking group home workers, many of them racial minorities working multiple jobs, picketed outside the state Capitol during the final days of the legislative session seeking a “living wage" but he believes the issue did not get the attention it deserved.
“If the goal is simply to have a budget, then I believe the state of Connecticut missed the mark,” he said.
The desire for bipartisanship has watered down some initiatives, said Sarah Ganong, state director of the left-leaning Connecticut Working Families Party. For example, a proposal to raise the age limit for Medicaid health insurance for immigrant children lacking legal status from 12 to 26 was reduced to 15.
“On the surface, maybe that seems like a sort of a bipartisan compromise,” she said. “But to a 17-year-old that doesn’t have health care right now, that’s not actually a middle ground. That’s clearly picking a side.”
This story has been corrected to show that Sen. Eric Berthel is serving his fourth term, not his ninth.
Susan Haigh, The Associated Press