Dems will push workplace laws, pot
Legislators advocate for minimum wage, paid leave, legal recreational marijuana
HARTFORD – After making major gains at the polls, Democratic legislators are re-energized to push forward a liberal agenda they believe can be enacted next year under Gov.-elect Ned Lamont.
Democrats are advocating for key bills they are calling the Big Five: raising the minimum wage, enacting paid family and medical leave, erecting electronic highway tolls, approving sports betting and legalizing recreational marijuana.
Three of those items would raise money, and some moderate Democrats think those increases should be the bulk of the revenue raisers — rather than hiking a variety of other taxes as the state faces a projected deficit of $2 billion in the next fiscal year.
Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state House of Representatives for a 92-59 advantage. They also gained five seats in the state Senate for a 23-13 margin, breaking an 18-18 tie for the past two years that allowed Republicans to block plans for tolls, sports bet-
ting and legalized marijuana, as well as increases in taxes and spending.
Rep. Josh Elliott, one of the most outspoken liberal Democrats in the House, said he foresees the major liberal issues being approved.
“Of the 25 new legislators we have in the House, the vast majority will be in the favor of the Big Five,” Elliott said. “I think those Big Five will all get done. The question is: What’s next?”
Elliott is looking ahead as the primary organizer of the Progressive Democratic Caucus, which he helped re-create after an 18-year hiatus. The informal liberal group has no official leader, but Elliott has been a driving force in the caucus that has 35 members and is now looking to expand to more than 45 members in January.
The group was planning to meet Sunday in New Haven to help plot strategy for the future, welcoming any legislator who wants to be part of the caucus.
While official votes were not held on the five major issues this year, Elliott thinks passage is likely next year because Democrats were just one vote short on tolls and the minimum wage. They were 17 votes short among House Democrats on marijuana legalization, he said.
Although some legislators want to move quickly on the key issues, the long process of public hearings and committee votes traditionally pushes important issues into May and June.
Lamont has repeatedly called for the legalization of recreational marijuana, but he said he has other immediate priorities when asked whether marijuana should be fast-tracked in Connecticut after retail sales recently started in Massachusetts.
“Look, my priority No. 1 is to get a budget, get people around that table, and get a budget that’s not meant to last for one year but a budget that helps us to have a blueprint for the next four and eight years,” Lamont said.
The two-year budget of more than $40 billion is expected to dominate the legislative session that starts when Lamont and legislators are sworn in on Jan. 9. Although the state’s rainy day fund is now expected to reach as high as $2.1 billion, the projected deficit in each of the next two years is expected to be at least $2 billion.or
While liberals are optimistic about their newfound power, Republicans are alarmed, saying their plans will backfire and hurt the state.
State Republican Chairman J.R. Romano said raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a mistake. The current minimum wage in Connecticut is $10.10, far above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
“Prices rise because of a higher minimum wage — a cup of coffee, groceries, gas,” Romano said. “You know who doesn’t get a raise? The nurse at Milford Hospital. That’s why it doesn’t work. Everything gets more expensive.”
“Connecticut is currently ranked one of the worst business climates in the country,” he added. “How are the things they’re pushing going to improve that?”
The elections caused major changes in the House and Senate, sweeping more liberals into the chambers. In addition, two of the most prominent conservative
Democratic senators — Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Gayle Slossberg of Milford — did not seek re-election. And several of the most fiscally conservative Republican senators — Len Suzio of Meriden, Toni Boucher of Wilton and L. Scott Frantz of Greenwich — were all swept out of office.
Rep. Danny Rovero of Killingly, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, also did not seek re-election. He has been an outspoken skeptic of sports betting and legalized marijuana, saying the state cannot try to balance its budget with gambling and pot.
One new House member, Democrat Maria Horn of Salisbury, said the exact wording on the issues will be critical to whether or not they have enough support to pass.
“I’m in favor of all of them, but the devil is in the details,” said Horn, who defeated Republican Rep. Brian Ohler in northwestern Litchfield County.
As a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Horn has seen drug cases up close and says the social costs of alcohol are higher than marijuana.
“It is definitely a waste of prosecutorial resources to prosecute marijuana criminally,” Horn said. “My hesitation about completely legalizing marijuana across the board is I wouldn’t want to exacerbate our drug abuse problem. I am not in any rush to do this to cash a check” by taxing marijuana.
Julie Kushner, one of the new Senate Democrats, spent her entire career as a union organizer, retiring as the regional director of the United Auto Workers for New England and New York City.
“Clearly, part of my campaign was to educate people about paid family leave,” said Kushner, who defeated longtime Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury, one of the
legislature’s most conservative members. “It will help working families right away — whether they have an illness or are having a baby. It has the immediate impact of helping families. I also think it’s good for the economy. Raising the minimum wage works in the same way — helping working families and helping the economy.”
Kushner, who broke a 24-year electoral winning streak by Republicans in her Senate district, said the money received by workers during paid leave will be spent locally and relatively quickly.
“They’re not going to be investing overseas,” she said. “They’re going to be spending it right back in the economy.”
But not all of the new Democrats are on board with each of the major issues. While Kushner strongly supports the Democratic agenda on paid family leave and the minimum wage, she has concerns about tolls, marijuana and sports betting.
“I am not in favor of tolls, and being in Danbury does have a lot to do with that,” said Kushner, referring to the city’s position bordering New York State. “It would cost locals so much to get on and off the highway. The other problem I have with tolls, to me, is trying to solve an economic problem from working-class and middle-class people. They can’t afford it.”
Kushner remains undecided on marijuana but is leaning in favor of legalization of small amounts. She also says she needs more information on sports betting.
Democrat Alexandra Bergstein of Greenwich, who defeated longtime Republican Sen. L. Scott Frantz, said she supports tolls, paid family leave and a living wage. But she opposes legalized marijuana because she has spent her career advocating for children’s health and safety.
“Research shows that marijua-
na can damage young brains that are not yet fully developed,” said Bergstein, who describes herself as an independent thinker who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. “I would hate to see the normalization of drugs with adverse neurological impact. The argument that legalization would bring in revenue does not take into account the cost to human health and our children.”
The precise wording of any bills on tolls is important for lawmakers. Lamont pledged during the campaign — and also since Election Day — that he wants to enact tolls only on large trucks, a move he says could raise about $250 million per year. A recent study by the state transportation department said Connecticut could raise $1 billion per year with tolls on all cars and trucks, depending on rates and presuming that tolls are collected approximately every 6 miles.
The top leaders in the legislature, including House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter all favor Lamont’s proposal for truck-only tolls. Looney has gone further and said he is in favor of tolling all vehicles to raise money to pay for road and bridge repairs.
Elliott, though, says the truckonly proposal was “just a campaign promise that may not be legally viable” because opponents argue it is unconstitutional to enact tolls on trucks but not cars. Rhode Island currently has truckonly tolls, but the truckers have filed a lawsuit to stop the practice.
Elliott said everyone who uses the roads should pay what is essentially a user fee. Connecticut drivers could receive a special discount, he said.
The toll bill, Elliott said, must ensure that the state is “not punishing the middle class and working poor.”