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New legislative session brings more Democrats to Hartford

By SUSAN HAIGHJanuary 6, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Not only will the Connecticut General Assembly be solidly Democratic when lawmakers convene Wednesday, it will also include more Democrats who call themselves progressive.

While that could mean more support for legislation often viewed as liberal-leaning, such as a higher minimum wage, it could also create challenges for the Democratic legislative leadership. About half of the 92 Democrats in the House of Representatives will be members of the chamber’s recently formalized Progressive Caucus. Many are part of a new wave of Democrats elected last year.

“I think that is going to be a difficult power struggle for the (House) Speaker to manage,” predicted House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “When you have half of your caucus that has called themselves something different, that’s going to be a management issue over there.”

But House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and East Haven Rep. James Albis, the caucus co-chairman who is also a deputy majority leader, downplayed the potential for intra-party discord this session and dismissed any comparisons to Washington, D.C. where U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the challenging task of trying to satisfy several factions, including larger numbers of Democrats who label themselves progressive or moderate. Both Ritter and Albis said disagreements have always occurred among Democrats, just like Republicans. But they said their party can ultimately come together, possibly with some Republicans, to work on issues such as paid family medical leave.

“What I’ve tried to remind everybody is, there’s only one caucus that has 76 votes in the House,” Ritter said, referring to the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the 151-member chamber. “And we’re all going to need each other to pass things.”

Albis said having a formal group of like-minded lawmakers who are “more to the left of center” is helpful because it provides a platform to get the message out about policies they care about. The caucus announced in early December plans to introduce bills regulating adult use of marijuana, instituting a $15-an-hour minimum wage and enacting paid family medical leave, arguing there is broad support among Connecticut residents for those issues. Albis said the caucus will roll out more proposed legislation in the coming weeks.

Tax policy changes could be on that list. Albis said the need for fairer taxation was raised more by voters than anything else during the last election, adding how “people are frustrated with our tax structure in the state of Connecticut.”

It was difficult at times last year for Democrats to pass certain bills, such as a $15-an-hour minimum wage or updated sexual harassment and assault laws, given the party’s slim 80-71 majority in the House. It was even more challenging in the Senate, where there was an 18-18 split between Democrats and Republicans. House Democrats will now hold a 92-59 advantage, so long as they hold onto one seat that’s been in dispute. In the Senate, Democrats will have a 23-13 advantage.

There will also be a new Democratic governor, Ned Lamont, who voiced support during the campaign for the issues backed by the progressive caucus.

Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said he hopes past bipartisan efforts, sparked in part by the close partisan makeup of the legislature, continue. He points to last year’s bipartisan state budget deal as “concrete fundamental evidence” that bipartisanship works.

Fasano warned Democrats not to mistake November’s election results as a full-throated endorsement of a Democratic agenda.

“This was a rejection of Trump and taking it out on Republicans,” Fasano said, referring to the president. “That’s not a mandate for progressive agendas. And if they read it that way, I think they’re making a mistake, both in terms of this state, but maybe their political future.”

Klarides agreed, saying there’s “no way” voters supported Democratic candidates because they wanted a repeat of Democratic policies from the past eight years.

Other likely hot topics for the new session include legalized sports betting, casino gambling, highway tolls, early voting and a ban on so-called ghost guns, firearms parts used to make untraceable weapons. And while the current fiscal year is projected to end June 30 with a $242 million surplus, lawmakers face various budgetary challenges, including a projected $2 billion deficit in the next fiscal year and $2.4 billion in red ink for 2020-21.

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