Do we detect a sense of urgency at the state Capitol? With less than three weeks left in the legislative session, the state Senate pulled an all-nighter Thursday to pass two significant bills: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and strengthening the state’s sexual harassment laws. The House has been hustling as well. Two major issues — tolls and legal marijuana — remain in flux. Gov. Ned Lamont has been pushing hard for tolls, and a draft bill was circulating the Capitol late last week. As for recreational marijuana, its chances were looking slim at the end of the week, according to one proponent. “Legalization is looking grim,” said state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden. “Like, not gonna happen over the next two years grim.”
Want to get this in your inbox every Friday? Subscribe to Capitol Watch at courant.com/newsletters.
The big stories
Fight for $15: The long-running “Fight for $15” campaign notched an important victory in Connecticut early Friday when the state Senate gave final approval to a bill to raise the minimum wage here to $15 an hour by 2023. Lamont has promised to sign the bill into law. Raising the minimum wage was a key campaign promise for Lamont and many Democrats running for the state legislature. Watching in the Senate gallery for the 2:30 a.m. vote was Takara Gilbert, a 20-year-old Hartford resident who earns the current $10.10 an hour minimum wage working as a cashier and food preparer at McDonald’s. “I believe everybody should be paid fairly,” she said. “It’s time.” The bill would gradually increase the minimum wage, going to $11 per hour in October, and rising by $1 per year for each of the next four years, before reaching $15 in 2023. After that, future increases would be tied to federal Employment Cost Index, which tracks wages.
Emotions run high on tolls: Another week brought more escalation in the high-stakes battle over electronic highway tolls. Lamont made a direct pitch to House Democrats in their caucus Wednesday, including those who are wavering on what has become a signature issue for the governor. He told them he knew it was a tough vote, but he needed their support. Republicans were irked by Lamont’s promise to help House Democrats raise money for their re-election efforts if they voted in favor of tolls. It stunk of pay-to-play politics or a quid-pro-quo, they said. An adviser to the governor said it wasn’t unusual for a governor to campaign or raise money to help fellow legislators in his party. The conflict escalated a day later when Lamont ripped a Republican alternative to tolls that relies on short-term borrowing and multiple studies. “I’m not going to let politicians hide behind yet another study,” he said. “That is not the way to get this state going.”
Alabama vs. Connecticut on abortion: While lawmakers in a handful of states have passed legislation restricting access to abortion, the General Assembly is moving in the opposite direction. The House voted Thursday to make Connecticut the first state in the nation to regulate faith-based pregnancy centers. The bill prohibits anti-abortion centers from engaging in false or deceptive advertising practices. In contrast to Alabama, where Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most stringent anti-abortion law in the nation, Connecticut is a state where the governor along with a majority of the legislature, including members of both parties, favor abortion rights. But there were several Republican-written amendments to the pregnancy centers bill that would have restricted access to abortion, including requiring parental notification. “If you take a look at the amendments that have been filed, we know that there are individuals in this state on the other side of the aisle who are also going after women’s rights,” said state Rep. Jilian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford.
Five things you may have missed
Tobacco 21 passes House: The push to raise the smoking age in Connecticut to 21 got a boost Thursday when the House approved so-called Tobacco 21 legislation. The bill raises the age to purchase all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. It would mean a slight loss of revenue to the state, but supporters said it would improve public health. “When it comes to the health of our young people we need to do what is right,” Lamont said. The bill passed with bipartisan support in a 124-22 vote and will head to the Senate for consideration. Several cities and towns across Connecticut, including Hartford, have already adopted Tobacco 21 ordinances. The case to raise the age was helped by a recent state Department of Public Health report that showed e-cigarette use among Connecticut high schoolers more than doubled from 2015 to 2017, when 14.7 percent of students reported using the products.
No vote on vaccines: Lawmakers won’t vote this year on legislation that would prohibit parents from citing religion as a reason not to vaccinate their school-age children. Amid the worst measles outbreak in decades and increasing numbers of religious waivers granted to Connecticut children, vaccines became a topic of significant discussion this year at the state Capitol. With data in hand from the state Department of Public Health that showed more than 100 schools in Connecticut with vaccination rates below the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended 95 percent “herd immunity” level, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly made a late push to vote this year to eliminate the religious exemption. But questions arose about how best to handle the students who have received exemptions and are currently enrolled in school, and the lawmakers agreed to ask the state health department to study the issue and report back next year.
XL center gets some help: Some good news for Hartford’s XL Center: Lamont has committed to bonding $60 million over the next two years to make needed repairs to the aging arena. That might seem in contrast to the governor’s “debt diet” to rein in state borrowing, but Lamont said the XL Center is a regional asset that’s worth maintaining. “Bonding is not the governor’s preference, but he understands the need to address critical maintenance issues to ensure the building remains a viable sports, music and entertainment venue in the short-term while looking at other options,” a spokeswoman for the governor said. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said officials will also examine a possible public-private partnership to shift the financial burden of the arena from state taxpayers. The $60 million does not address the larger question of a proposed major overhaul to the arena, which was most recently pegged at $100 million but has ranged as high a $250 million.
Trump radio: If Connecticut radio station WDRC was looking to get attention, the plan worked. A temporary rebrand as “Trump 103.3” attracted attention from across the country, including both those who admire and despise the president. The owner of the station said the suggestion came from a listener, and he thought it perfectly encapsulated the station’s ultra-conservative identity. Ten billboards with a caricature of Trump were put up in the Hartford area. “My [station] owner is a crazy person, but in a good way,” said Lee Elci, a conservative talk radio host who is part of the WDRC lineup. “He likes to make a big splash, and he likes to ramp up the listeners.” The White House has not responded to requests for comment about what the commander-in-chief thinks of a Connecticut radio station adopting Trump branding. Trademark experts said the station could run into problems with its commercial use of the president’s name.
Senate passes ‘Time’s Up Act’: The state Senate early Friday unanimously passed a bill that would significantly strengthen the state’s sexual assault and harassment laws. The so-called Time’s Up Act was the General Assembly’s response to high-profile cases of sexual harassment in Hollywood and other industries. A similar bill passed the Senate last year but was not called for a vote in the House. This year’s bill has four components: It greatly expands sexual harassment training requirements for employers; it creates an enhanced role for the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities; it extends the time frame for criminal prosecution of serious sexual assault crimes, and it extends the window for victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits. “This is a really important piece of legislation at a time when more and more victims are mustering a courage I can’t fully comprehend in coming forward and telling their stories,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly.
Odds and ends
A newspaper columnist is crying foul over New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s recent claim that he poaches businesses from New York and Connecticut “all the time.” Susan Bruce, of The Conway Daily Sun in Sununu’s home state, asked the governor for a list of businesses he had convinced to decamp and move up north. “Sununu’s office claimed they couldn’t answer on the grounds of confidentiality,” she wrote. “I think we all know bunkum when we hear it.” ... One issue that’s arisen during the contentious debate over tolls has been answered: Lawmakers won’t be exempt. That’s according to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. He said legislators, like everyone else, will be on the hook for tolls. But with access to travel reimbursement and thousands of dollars for expenses, it won’t have quite the same impact. … A state representative is in hot water and Courant columnist Jon Lender is on the case. Lender reports Rep. Brian Lanoue, R-Griswold, is facing a Department of Consumer Protection complaint after a rotting tree crashed through a mobile home at a trailer park he and his mother own together in Griswold. It missed resident Richard Ozga by a foot and a half. “It would have split my head,” he said. A hearing on the complaint against Lanoue’s trailer park will continue next month. ... Like father like son? Bridgeport politico Lennie Grimaldi reports on his Only in Bridgeport blog that Mike Herbst, father of former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, is considering running for the post his son once held. The younger Herbst has twice been a Republican candidate for statewide office, losing a close run for state treasurer in 2014 and falling in a primary for governor last year. … Hat tip to Courant sports columnist Mike Anthony, who delivered the story last week of state Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, a former professional boxer who at the age of 48 is contemplating a return to the ring. Simms has a photograph in his office of himself standing next to legendary boxing promoter Don King. The phrase “politics is a contact sport” was never more appropriate.