First we spoke with Wilton’s newest state senator, Will Haskell to talk about his first three pieces of legislation he’s introducing as a member of the state legislature. Today, we talk with our State Representative Gail Lavielle about her priorities for the session–her efforts to guard the state budget process and what bills she will introduce. She also explains how it all works in Hartford…
Gail Lavielle: The committees don’t really get off and running until the Governor presents his budget proposal. And in the first year of someone’s first administration they get a little extra time. Normally he would present Feb. 6 but it’s going to be more like Feb. 17 or Feb. 20.
Before this happens, committees get organized, get their bills in, ranking members and chairs review them, but we really can’t have a serious meeting until we know really where everything’s going. The deadline for proposed bills is Friday of this week (Jan. 17). We introduce bills on anything we want on an odd year. Those are concept bills–they’re not very elaborate, they’re not fully drafted language, they’re just meant to indicate a direction. Then the chairs and ranking members of each committee meet in private with staff to go over all the bills that have been submitted.
They also discuss their committee bills that they just want to introduce as a committee. Ultimately every bill will be a committee bill because no one gets their individual bill through. It’s just the way the legislature works. If they like your bill they kill your bill and then they introduce it as a committee bill. That’s why [during campaigning] people say, “So and so never had a bill passed.”
Democrats, Republicans, no matter, nobody does. That’s just the way it works. But that’s okay.
Because I’m ranking member on the Appropriations Committee I’m going to be in the room for many, many budget talks. Maybe not all of them at the end because maybe [the Democratic leadership] will shut us out again, but for lots of them I will be there. Some of the things that I would want to do, for example:
- no more sweeps of the energy efficiency fund,
- no cuts to education that would not be consistent with our formula.
- let’s pay the full one-third of the teacher’s healthcare retirement fund
- I want to contribute the right amount to the special transportation fund.
All of those things I want to make sure that we do because they frequently do not get done, even though they are required by statute. But it would be stupid to introduce a bill to say that we have to do it because it’s already law. So, part of my job is to sit there and try to exert pressure to make sure that those things happen.
A lot of my activity this year will be very budget focused, very focused on controlling spending and spending only for what we need, and then making sure that it doesn’t exceed revenue. So that’s a big priority for me but it doesn’t involve my introducing legislation.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Does it feel any different with this new administration, with the new Governor and his new administration?
Gail Lavielle: It does a little. Not in terms of policy–we can’t tell with policy, it’s really pretty vague right now. Except the minimum wage, and the family leave, and all that stuff. That’s very clear. That’s out there in [six bills introduced by Senate Democrats]. But, definitely when you were in the room for the Governor’s address, you could breathe. When Malloy used to give them you could not breathe. You felt like everything was zipped up, there was no sense of humor, there was no room for anything. Everybody on both sides of the aisle felt that way.
You got the sense that Lamont at least has more humanity. Whether I can agree with him on anything, I don’t know. I know that I wouldn’t want to say right now because I might agree with a lot of stuff, I don’t know.
But he definitely seemed to be more human and he could laugh at himself, which is important for anybody. This sounds frivolous when you’re talking about a Governor, but really it’s not.
There is one big thing where I really do agree with something he’s done and I applaud it. That is his appointment of Joe Giulietti as head of the Department of Transportation. Joe was president of Metro-North and I got to know him really well during that time. He was very helpful to me–in other words, us. He helped get that schedule change for Metro-North on the Danbury line.
He was very open when I said, ‘Can I come meet with you and bring every single constituent question with me?’ I went in there and he had his whole management staff with him. They stayed with me until I finished. That was a long meeting, about three hours long. He’s a very, very knowledgeable guy and I doubt that there’s anyone in the United States who would be as competent to run the DOT.
GMW: That bodes well for Fairfield County and your district.
Lavielle: I hope so. That he does listen and is open and I think he’s honest. It’s just my impression of the man, but I’m fortunate in getting to know him pretty well during his tenure.
GMW: So with him in his new position, are you as a legislator able to go in and talk with him again?
Lavielle: Anytime I want. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with [former DOT Commissioner James Redeker]. Of course, I’ll have Giulietti in testimony before the Appropriations Committee and I’ll also have him before the Transportation Committee. So I will get to question him in public a couple of times and then he may come in to testify on bills as well, not just of that department but on bills. And I’ll have him in Appropriations work sessions. So yeah, I expect to talk to him quite a bit.
Other than that, we’re all very curious as to what Governor Lamont’s attitude and policy will be regarding the unions, where so much of the money is tied up. And how that’s all going to be dealt with.
Also, I’m looking forward to doing with my [Democratic] Appropriations chairs what I did so pleasantly [as Ranking Member] with my Education Committee chair. We had a really good talk before the first session started, and from that day everything was so smooth and so friendly–and so bipartisan. I don’t hope for the same bipartisanship because it’s budget, but I do hope for the same type of relationship. So far I have not been able to get that meeting, but I’m trying.
[The two committee chairs] are, let’s say fiscally neither of them is really what almost anybody I know in Fairfield County would want, so we’ll see. Everyone always expects Appropriations is where the differences emerge. I am always willing to do anything to make sure the relationships are respectful, and everybody’s included. We haven’t had a meeting yet, so I’m hoping for the best. We have our first meeting of the entire committee next Wednesday, [Jan. 23] as with Transportation and Education.
But Appropriations will be by far the biggest time taker because once the governor comes out with this budget, then we will immediately go into public hearing, and we will hear the governor’s budget bill. Budget hearings go on for about 10 days, end of February beginning of March. The heads of the state agencies come in in the morning and testify before us, and then in the evening, at about six or seven o’clock, the public comes in. Sometimes we’re there all night. And it goes on for nine or 10 days.
When that’s over we start having sub-committee work sessions. There are about 15 sub-committees in Appropriations, and I’m going to have to go to all of them, day in and day out for a long time. We go over every single line item of every part of the governor’s budget and make recommendations as to what we think should be done, and then the chairs of Appropriations have the final say as to what the final recommendation is submitted. Then technically at that point, the chairs of Appropriations and the ranking members and the leaders of all four caucuses go into a room and start talking about what they really want to do.
Sometimes we get to go into the room and sometimes we don’t, as the minority.
Last time we were all so close in numbers, we all had to be in the room. This time, we have to wait and see how it goes. We don’t know. But I think it’s always a disadvantage to nearly half the state when the other half of the legislature is not allowed in the room.
Finance Bills She’ll Introduce
Lavielle: There are a few that actually do have to do with state spending and revenue. One of them was a bill that I introduced last year actually. It’s the ‘Revenue Before Spending Bill.’ Here’s what it does:
In Wilton, you know the Board of Finance always sets the revenue? The [town and school] boards do their budget, and the BOF gives them guidelines–you’ve got to be within ‘this.’ The state does it backwards. The state has, ‘Here’s what we want to spend, oh boy lots of money, let’s spend it.’ And then, of course, they run out of money. Then the Finance Committee has to go scrounge up the money to pay for all that. And it’s not, ‘We don’t think the people in Connecticut will be able to pay all of this.’ Instead, it’s, ‘Okay, you’ve told us to spend this much, so we’ve got to go get the money.’
This bill would actually require the Finance Committee to produce revenue projections before or at least concurrently, very concurrently, with the Appropriations Committee’s spending proposal.
GMW: How do you think that’s going to be received?
Lavielle: Well, the Senate chair of Appropriations was very nasty about it last year, but most people think it’s a good idea. I don’t think that it will pass, but it may have a chance just because this governor is new and he’s run a business. I’m not likening government to a business, but he knows something about finance, so I thought it was worth trying again. The governor doesn’t make those decisions while the legislative process is going on, but his opinions on things certainly permeate the majority party.
When you’re ranking on a committee, sometimes you have a better chance of getting your own things, at least at hearing. If we don’t get a hearing, there’s not going to be much I can do about it.
It’s very, very important, because it prevents the finance committee from really being serious about setting tax policy. Instead of saying, ‘What would be good for the state, and how could we do things fairly, how could we find places to tax that still attract people to still come in the state? What’s fair, what’s good, what’s effective?’ Instead they’re just left trying to pull money together, to float things out during the session, like, ‘Hey, let’s tax marijuana or whatever,’ without really going into the policy implication. It would be nice if that committee really had an opportunity to work in a policy driven sort of way.
I’m putting [another] one in again, that does not allow the governor to cut education mid-year. And that bill did pass the house and the senate I believe unanimously–I believe it was unanimous, in both chambers. And it was Malloy who vetoed it.
I’ve got another one, getting rid of the estate or gift tax right away.They are not very large as revenue items go, and they are a definite deterrent for retired people to stay here, so I think we should just bite the bullet, go ahead and do it. We also have this phase-out now for the social security [income] tax, that I have suggested that we just get rid of the thresholds now.
Those are in the financial area that I thought were important. And the rest of my financial work is really sitting there on appropriations and trying to make sure that we deliver on things that people are expecting and things properly budgeted and we’re not spending more than we take in.
Lavielle: So Transportation, there is going to be a discussion of tolls, we know that. We don’t know what the bills are going to look like, or if they’re going to make a little more sense than the ones from last year.
But to me there’s always been something missing in every single discussion. And it is a serious set of projections about when and by how much gas tax revenues are expected to decline. Because if gas tax revenues were never expected to go away, because of hybrid cars and electric cars, and stuff like that, I would have some serious questions to begin with, just about the amount of money in the hole.
But eventually the belief is that is going to happen, that we’re going to be a lot less reliant on gas tax. If that’s the case, we need to know when and by how much. And if we’re talking about replacing the gas tax, that’s a different matter.
It’s not like we would cut the gas tax, it would be going away. So, I have a bill that requires the DOT to furnish a set of 20-year projections on gas tax revenue. And that would have to be updated every single year. That way we know what we’re doing. And again, you see this proposal, it’s just one proposal, but where they say, ‘If we put 82 gantries all over the state, we could get a billion dollars a year,’ well it’s not clear that we need a billion dollars a year, so do we have to put that much pressure on Connecticut drivers.
I don’t know, maybe it’s not enough. I don’t know. We need the projections, so I’ve asked for that.
I have put in a bill that I have voted for at least six times, but never introduced myself, which does not mention Tesla specifically, but it would allow Tesla to sell their cars directly [to consumers] in Connecticut. It’s worded more generically than that–‘the car manufacturer.’ But this is something that’s changing over time. Hundreds of people have written to me and I have voted for that bill in committee, Transportation, Finance, I’ve voted for it on the House floor. It did pass on the house floor at least once, maybe twice. And the hold-up was in the Senate. I have some further ideas on it, but I thought it needed to go in. I didn’t know if anyone else would introduce it so I did.
Lavielle: For Education there are a few. One is, in all those Senate bills, there is an important thing to make sure that what’s going on in community colleges, colleges and technical schools matches the jobs that are open in Connecticut, and I agree with that totally. It’s ridiculous that it’s not happening, it’s unconscionable.
When I was ranking member of the Education Committee, I had before me the superintendent of the state’s Technical High School System, and he was very proud of the graduation rate. I asked him, ‘Well, how many of those were in advanced manufacturing fields or computer science, software engineering fields, places where we had job openings in Connecticut?’ He couldn’t tell me.
So, in this bill, I require the technical high schools to send an annual report by discipline on student graduates. Which just makes sense. He kept talking about trades–and I have very high respect for the trades–but that’s not where we have the jobs open.
I’ve introduced another bill to stop the proposed community college consolidation from going ahead without legislative approval.
Norwalk Community College was absolutely obsessed with opposing the proposal to consolidate all the community colleges into one big Connecticut community college, and it was supposedly to save money. But it would have actually cut a lot of the programs available to students. They’re going to lose a lot of people, and it didn’t save that much money. They are trying to revise the whole thing, but there was no legislative involvement or anything, there’s no legislature required. I think it should have more oversight, so far it hasn’t been a very good idea.
Also, Norwalk Community College has a very large endowment, and if they were merged into the Connecticut Community College, it would have the fundraising say over what would happen to Norwalk Community College. So that’s kind of a big deal and has a lot of effect on us down here, because a lot of people use Norwalk Community College.
Lavielle: One of the things that many, many constituents were very concerned about, and I felt very responsible for paying attention to, was the lingering ghost gun bill that did not pass. So I have introduced a ghost gun bill. And a lot of my colleagues will be joining me on it. And I knew that anybody who’s introducing a ghost gun bill at this point, it’s certainly not going to be any of our own bills that go.
This year it will have its own bill. But I think it’s important enough to where it’s necessary to introduce one and show that it matters. And then a bunch of people asked to be added to it.
It’s important–nobody should be running around with a gun that doesn’t have a serial number, and nobody should be able to make a gun under circumstances that are unregulated. Who knows if they’re safe? They’ve killed people, but also, they’re not safe to use. And they’re not detectable enough. Some of them are plastic, they’re not detectable enough with metal detectors.
And I’ve got a couple 8-30g bills. We can’t let that fall through the cracks. I’ve introduced both of them before. One because it simply makes good sense. If you’re going to build an apartment today, and it’s designated affordable housing, and then it loses that designation after two decades–I think it should be designated affordable in perpetuity. So that’s the designated in perpetuity bill.
Then there’s another one that I introduced in 2015. It would allow a town to extend its moratorium if it had been able during the course of the moratorium to demonstrate significant progress in the construction of affordable housing. The whole statute is structured to never allow a town like ours to reach the quota. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Let’s be able to reach the quota.
I’ve also got one to move the August primary earlier. My bill says the end of May, but I’d be happy with June. When people run for governor, they take public financing–I think it’s $6 million. Now the primary is August 14, so they only have two months to spend that money. Also, people don’t have much time to learn about the candidates. Candidates don’t have time to really project themselves. Multiple people run so hard for people to sort it out.
One more–a lot of people here are concerned about it, a lot of people have talked to me about doing something. It’s about minors vaping. I don’t care if adults vape, that’s their business, that’s not mine. But kids are running around with these things that look like computer flash drives, and it’s a Juul. What I suggested is that anything that is a nicotine delivering device be labeled ‘nicotine delivering device.’But not on the packaging because they don’t have it in the packaging anymore, right? It just should say that, so when a parent finds it or the teacher finds it, the kids just carrying it around in plain view, people know what it is. Because this is a very serious problem.
A lot of people who are very pro-vaping are concerned about any vaping laws because they say it helped them quit smoking. With some people it probably does, but when you get a kid who’s 12 years old, they’re not trying to quit smoking, they’re starting to smoke. I will support anything that helps encourage young children to not ingest nicotine.
GMW: You know, I noticed you did a little bit of live video from the floor. Are your constituents going to see more of that, given that it seems to be somewhat of a trend now?
Lavielle: I’ve seen on Facebook they get a whole lot more views than just the text. So it’s a good way to inform people. I’m sure I’ll do one after the Governor’s budget draft. Next Wednesday, I have the organizational meetings for all three of my committees. So I could step out, say, ‘Well, everybody, hey, I’m here doing my organizational meetings for all three of my committees, and it was great, and we’ve got a whole lot of work to do.’ I need to make sure there’s something to say, but if there is, I will do that.
GMW: Anything else that you want to communicate to your constituents? You send out emails and post on social media to keep everyone informed. But anything else you want convey to your constituents about how they can keep up on what’s happening in Hartford, or what they can do to stay informed?
Lavielle: Well, first off, if they want to get me, that’s easy. My state email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And if it’s a constituent request, I like them to use the state email, because I don’t lose them that way. It’ll keep track of it. And there’s also my state website, which is replavielle.com. And they can sign up for the constituent e-blast on there, as well.
And my office number is 860.240.8700. And obviously on Facebook.
And also, everybody can always watch us. I know that enough people have more going on in their lives, but on CT-N.com. All the floor submissions, all of the meetings of the committees I’m on will be on CT-N, because they’re big committees. The small ones like banks and aging and stuff, they don’t always get televised, but mine are always. The public hearings, the meetings, everything. They’re on TV.