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Legislature needs to extend Lamont's emergency powers

We don’t like it, but we see no alternative to the General Assembly meeting in special session soon to extend Gov. Ned Lamont’s special emergency powers before they expire Sept. 9.

Back in March, in response to a rapid increase in COVID-19 infections and Connecticut’s close proximity to New York City, then the nation’s viral hotspot, Lamont declared a public health emergency and a civil preparedness emergency. The executive powers handed the governor under those declarations are immense, circumventing the normal checks and balances our system of representative government provide.

The state legislature could have moved to block the governor’s move, but recognized that Lamont needed the power to act quickly in response to the then growing emergency. After six months, however, the emergency powers are set to expire and with them the 68 executive orders Lamont has issued in response to the crisis — unless the legislature extends his special authority.

These orders closed schools and are guiding their reopening. The orders shut down many businesses to discourage the spread of COVID-19 and set the parameters for them to resume business. They have kept bars closed because of the perceived risk of a renewed outbreak that their opening would invite. The orders have covered everything from face mask requirements, to modification of state contracting statutes for emergency procurements, to changes in candidate petition rules, to a freeze on evictions.

While we remain uncomfortable with a governor having so much unilateral authority, the fact is the health crisis persists, if not as seriously as a few months ago. While disagreements can and have arisen over specific orders, Lamont has not shown a propensity to abuse the broad authority given him.

It would be chaotic, and not in the interests of public health, to let all the orders expire with the viral threat unresolved. And it is unreasonable to expect the legislature to take up all the orders and decide which to codify in law and under what parameters.

The best course of action, therefore, is to extend the governor’s emergency authority another four months, giving Lamont the ability to unwind some of the existing orders and institute new ones as events dictate.

Negotiations between the administration and legislative leaders are taking place. State senators and House members — who saw their regular session melt away due to the pandemic — might be tempted to try to ram through other legislation in a pre-election frenzy, hoping to show voters they got things done.

This would be a mistake and inappropriate.

Yes, there may be some matters that need immediate attention. One example that comes to mind is the proposal by Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, to inject another $250,000 in state aid to organizations that deal with the victims of domestic violence, a scourge that has increased with the isolation and additional stress brought on by the pandemic and associated economic distress.

But undertaking major policy initiatives should await the next regular legislative session in 2021 and the verdict of voters in electing their state senators and representatives Nov. 3.

Yes, the editorial board did support passage of the sweeping police accountability bill in the July special session, but that came in response to historic public demand in the form of protests across our state. There is no matching groundswell of support for additional legislation.

Gov. Lamont should resist any overtures to give his support to major legislation in return for the legislature agreeing to back an extension of his emergency authority. Lamont holds the high ground, with polls showing the public largely approving of his handling of the crisis. If the legislature hesitates, Lamont should appeal to that public.

Barring a dramatic spike in cases when the colder weather returns, and using reasonable precautions, the legislature should be able to meet for its regular session early next year. It will have plenty of work to do in the wake of the fiscal and economic damage caused by this crisis. Let major legislation wait until then.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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