Dems will push work­place laws, pot

Leg­is­la­tors ad­vo­cate for min­i­mum wage, paid leave, le­gal re­cre­ational mar­i­juana

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Christo­pher Keat­ing ck­eat­[email protected]

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.”

El­liott

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