Greenwich Time (Sunday)

Lawmakers debate paid leave, homage to a chief justice

- By Ken Dixon

HARTFORD — With little more than two weeks before the midnight May 8 adjournmen­t deadline of the General Assembly’s short session, lawmakers are starting to scurry between the House and Senate, trying to clear paths for their priority bills.

Action picked up on Wednesday and Thursday with the passage of some bills. But with the need for action in both chambers, and only a dozen or so work days left in the session, a premium is being placed on less-controvers­ial proposals. On Thursday, lawmakers voted after protracted debates, took time out to praise the memory of the state’s first female chief justice of the state Supreme Court and fretted over bills that are still hanging and whose “work in progress” status could spell their doom.

Paid Family and Medical Leave

It took three-and-ahalf hours and four failed Republican amendments in the Senate for the Democratic majority to work its will toward an incrementa­l expansion of the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which more than 100,000 people have taken advantage of since it began making payments in January of 2022.

Pointing to the current $700 million surplus in the program, GOP senators led by conservati­ve Rob Sampson of Wolcott and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding of Brookfield, offered a variety of changes, including a reduction in the statewide payroll deduction of 0.5 percent, down to 0.4 percent.

“I know this can affect anyone, across the board, regardless of where we come from,” Sampson said of the program that Republican­s opposed in 2019 and tried to unwind with amendments on Thursday. “Here in this country, traditiona­lly, these types of benefits are negotiated individual­ly between employers and employees. That program could have easily been created as an optional program with voluntary participat­ion. We should not be telling them they have to participat­e in something against their will. It’s not our money, it’s their money.”

Harding said the bill, which would allow casino employees into the program, gives the governor unilateral authority to broker a deal with the tribal nations on the amount deducted from employee wages, scuttling the General Assembly’s role. “Every dollar counts as we face the record inflation that we have in this state and across this country, and today we’re implementi­ng a policy that takes more money out of the pockets of hard-working employees,” he said. “We’re now expanding a tax.”

State Sen. Julie Kushner, a former regional labor leader and co-chairwoman of the Labor & Public Employees Committee, helped beat back the GOP amendments to the bill, noting it would make sexual assault victims eligible for the salary-replacemen­t program that provides benefits for up to 12 weeks.

“One of the things I’m really proud of as well, is the way this fund is managed. We have the lowest contributi­on rate of any program like this in the country,” Kushner said, adding that 0.5 percent is lower than what any other state collects to administer similar benefits.

“When we first debated this bill in 2019 we heard lots of doom and gloom about paid family and medical leave and what it would do in our state, and if it would roll out, if it would be bankrupt, if people would actually do it, would it drive out businesses?” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, as the debate finally headed toward a 25-11 vote, with Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, joining Democrats.

While many large companies offer paid leave, many hourly workers don’t have the means to supplement their incomes if they stay home with illness, new babies or ailing family members. “Other states don’t have this,” Duff said. “In fact, here we are, we kind of look at the values we have here in Connecticu­t where we have something like paid family and medical leave and you have other states like Florida that still have a $7 minimum wage. The contrast couldn’t be clearer about who values employees in this country. We do.”

“The money that’s taken out, a worker’s pay, is really a form of very minimal-cost insurance policy,” said Sen. President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “Those workers are Connecticu­t residents and they are entitled to this relief just as everyone else is. If you look at the scale of it, we really need to come down on the side of the human needs of employees.”

Homage to the first female chief justice

Ellen Ash Peters, Connecticu­t’s first female appointed to the state Supreme Court who died

this week at age 94, was the subject of brief memorials in the General Assembly. Veteran state Rep. Bob Godfrey, DDanbury, noted that the German-born Peters, whose family fled the Nazis, was plucked from the Yale Law School faculty by Gov. Ella T. Grasso in 1978, bypassing the usual career path of judges serving in lower courts before seated on the Supreme Court bench.

“She was 54 when she was made chief justice and changed the way we actually nominate and confirm judges ever since,” said Godfrey, who had her late husband, Phillip Blumberg, as a professor and dean when Godfrey attended the University of Connecticu­t School of Law. “She started asking questions of the attorneys arguing a case before the court and changed that dynamic. She waded into issues dealing with the state Constituti­on that had not been dealt with ever before. Sheff v. O’Neill happened on her watch and changed the way we do education funding here in the state of Connecticu­t. Just a remarkable achievemen­t and a legacy.”

Bills on the edge of the cliff

Historical­ly, as legislativ­e sessions head toward their conclusion­s, massive changes occur just to get bills closer to the finish line. And sometimes those changes don’t help achieve passage, as in the abbreviate­d, then abruptly cut off debate on a bill first drafted to ban the sale of so-called energy drinks to anyone age 16 or younger.

On the House floor Thursday afternoon, Rep. Liz Linehan, DCheshire, co-chairwoman of the Children’s Committee, announced the legislatio­n would become a study bill, with a working group to look at the issue and report back. “The purpose of this was to give more control to parents regarding the ingestion of these drinks, because they’ve been known to cause heart arrhythmia, panic attacks and even death,” Linehan said. But suddenly, the introducti­on of the bill was suspended and it was sidelined by Deputy Majority Leader Christine

Conley, D-Groton. Whether it comes back for debate is up for speculatio­n.

Also in limbo are a few recycling bills, for consumer batteries, the vehicular tire stewardshi­p program and propane tanks, known as Extended Product Responsibi­lity, or EPR.

Rep. Joe Gresko, DStratford, co-chairman of the Environmen­t Committee, said earlier in the day that the battery legislatio­n, which was proposed by the industry, is caught up in antitrust provisions. “Now it seems to be an issue,” Gresko said, stressing the combustion hazards of putting

even radio and flashlight batteries in the waste stream. “We’ve had fires in municipal recycling facilities in New Haven,” he said. “When you crush that, it can ignite a fire.”

The tire industry, Gresko said, is asking for more time to come up with a program. “We want this to be successful, since we’re the first in the country doing it, we want to give them a little bit more time,” he said. The tank industry, meanwhile, which already has an EPR in place, has asked for the right to file lawsuits and require mandatory participat­ion within the industry.

 ?? Ken Dixon/Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? State Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding, speaking during a recent news conference in the Capitol complex. To his right is Rep. Gale Mastrofran­cesco, R-Wolcott. To the far left is Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, then Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott.
Ken Dixon/Hearst Connecticu­t Media State Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding, speaking during a recent news conference in the Capitol complex. To his right is Rep. Gale Mastrofran­cesco, R-Wolcott. To the far left is Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, then Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott.
 ?? John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the legislativ­e Labor & Public Employees Committee during a 2022 workers-rights rally.
John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticu­t Media State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the legislativ­e Labor & Public Employees Committee during a 2022 workers-rights rally.

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