Democrats ask Lamont to set special session to address coronavirus impact, police, election issues

Photo of Ken Dixon

Leaders of the General Assembly are working on a trio of legislative packages for consideration during a special session to bring lawmakers to the State Capitol in late June or after the July 4 holiday weekend.

Their intentions were expressed to Gov. Ned Lamont in a Tuesday letter, asking for the governor to call lawmakers back to Hartford.

In response, Lamont sent a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders promising to call the special session and direct Paul Mound Jr., his chief of staff, to begin discussions on a format.

While currently being discussed and drafted among majority Democrats, the incomplete bills include changes to the oversight and actions of law enforcement agencies after the death of George Floyd; modifications in voting laws to allow to residents to cast absentee ballots in the November presidential election; and putting a cap on the price of insulin for people with diabetes.

The leaders also want to strengthen the state’s safety net, which has been stretched in record unemployment rates and a wounded state economy that they hope will bounce back during the Phase 2 reopening set for June 17.

“The pandemic and our ability to respond to it has revealed ways our government can do better to ensure that we are protecting our residents physically, emotionally and financially,” said the letter, signed by Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff.

In a separate request to the governor, the Democrats also asked for the possible extension of Lamont’s executive order that allows Republicans and Democrats to vote by mail for the Aug. 11 primaries, to include the Nov. 3 presidential election.

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the law-writing Judiciary Committee and a leader in justice reforms, said Tuesday that he and other lawmakers are reviewing a variety of changes to police operations, training and responsibility in light of the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, where the African American was allegedly choked to death by one cop while three others stood idly by.

“We’re looking at the use-of-force spectrum, including the duty to intervene,” said Winfield, who is recent years has led wide-ranging legislative efforts to increase police transparency. He and lawmakers including Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, his co-chairman, are also exploring issues including independent investigations of police-involved deaths, banning so-called chokeholds, and requiring more use of video cameras.

“We’re also interested in ways to make training more meaningful,” Winfield said. “We live in a time when we know we’re not being told everything.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Tuesday that she would support changes in state law that Floyd’s death have underscored.

“I am open to any conversation,” Klarides said. “I have reached out to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. If we’re going to do that, we need to sit down and do it, whether in special session or regular session.”

Last year, Lamont signed into law a bill that requires law enforcement agencies to release body-cam or dashboard camera video within 96 hours of an incident.

“I think we will build off the bill we passed last year,” Stafstrom said. “I think it’s fair to say that Connecticut has taken significant steps on police transparency. We certainly have not finished the job.”

Stafstrom said he and Winfield have reached out to advocacy groups, community organizations and other members of the legislature.

“We’re trying to combine the best of those suggestions into a possible menu of options,” Stafstrom said. “We’re been looking for insight and ideas.”

He described Lamont as “engaged and involved” in the process. In recent years the legislature has required safer gun storage and approved laws that codify the use of video cameras by the public.

“It comes down to training and retraining,” said Duff, D-Norwalk, who doubts that the special session will occur in June because of the added protocols, including health-and-safety measures needed to bring in 187 lawmakers, staff and the public from all over the state to the State Capitol complex. The regular session ended on May 6 during the height of the pandemic, which resulted in the closure of the Capitol on March 12.

Duff said direct oversight of police is one thing, but there are lingering, systemic issues involving race, affordable housing, jobs, health care and educational opportunities in addition to legal and criminal-justice reforms. “What are folks going to do to end systemic racism?” Duff said.

“I think the timing of the session remains to be determined, but within the next month or so,” Looney said, adding that he expects some kind of replication of the governor’s order to allow absentee ballots for the presidential primaries. He said committee leaders have been meeting and drafting various agendas.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said that the General Assembly could change the state law to allow voters obtain absentee ballots if their fear for their health in the pandemic. While Lamont’s allowance of mail-in voting is allowed for the primary under his executive orders, they expire on Sept. 9.

“They need to clarify all of this for people,” Merrill said. While the state Constitutional can be read to allow people afraid of the coronavirus to vote by absentee, the election statutes limit mail-in ballots to people in the military, out-of-town on election day, or actually sick.

“If they do a special session they absolutely must go in and do something about election law,” said Merrill, adding that the best thing to do would be to get 75-percent votes in the House and Senate to change the Constitution, and allow statewide voters to consider it on the November ballot.

“You can make some changes to the statute that would give it more flexibility,” she said. “I am not someone who believes everyone should vote by absentee ballot, but we need the flexibility.”

State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, co-chairman of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said Tuesday that he is working on a variation of a bill that passed his committee, to help diabetics afford the soaring cost of insulin. The plans include capping out-of-pocket costs for people with insurance plans, while also reconfiguring AccessHealthCT, the state exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I’ve been working on the legislation nonstop since before the regular session started in January,” Lesser said. Twitter: @KenDixonCT