After more than a year, governing by fiat needs an exit plan
The early days of the pandemic rapidly schooled Connecticut's government that some decisions could not wait for deliberations of the ordinary legislative kind. The General Assembly itself had to cope with voting remotely on the most pressing bills and spent most of the last session off the premises of the Capitol.
Faced with the growing emergency, lawmakers voted in March 2020 to extend to the governor the power to make certain decisions without a vote. They renewed the authorization in September and again in January.
Now the Lamont administration is focused on reopening the state and on the vaccination program that will make that safe to do. The governor and his staff are trying to get as much of life as possible back to the new version of normal. They make a major, constitutional exception, however, by seeking to extend the use of emergency executive orders once again.
Normal includes operating state government according to the state Constitution. The legislature is back in session this spring, masked and socially distanced but dealing as it normally would with the biennial budget and legislation.
On Thursday, however, the House Democratic leadership concurred with the governor that it is too soon to go back to normal as it pertains to dealing with pandemic recovery. Over vociferous Republican objections, the House agreed to extend the emergency executive order process for two types of emergencies — civil preparedness and public health — to May 20, an additional month. The bill now goes to the Senate, with its sizable Democratic majority.
What the House bill does not offer, and the state ought to be developing, is a timetable and an exit plan for getting back to normal governance. By May 20 the state will have been under emergency powers for more than 14 months.
House Republicans wanted a swifter exit from the emergency authorization. They proposed tight limitations on the length of emergency authorization for executive orders. They would dispose of the notion of having to extend all or none of the current authorizations in bulk by having the governor and six legislative leaders determine which ones should be modified, codified or disposed of by April 20, the current end date for the authorizations. Senate Republicans on Friday followed the House vote with a renewed request from leader Kevin Kelly to the governor for such a "conversation."
Fourteen months is a startlingly lengthy time to sideline the normal processes of governance; only a long, drawn-out crisis of the dimensions of the pandemic would justify it. And it was justifiable, given the sudden onslaught of lethal infectious disease with virtually no readiness to deal with it. Even as it was, too many lives were lost while officials got a handle on ways to prevent the spread.
All have spoken repeatedly of the heroes of this crisis, and surely the medical personnel, public health officials, municipal leaders, educators and deliverers of vital food and supplies have something to contribute from what they experienced, how they coped, what worked and what failed them. As the pandemic slows down, the state should convene representatives from all these sectors and collect their advice for the next emergency.
What Connecticut must take away from this prolonged crisis is a both a smarter way in and an expedited way out. Good policymaking and good lawmaking aim to prepare for emergencies the way a fire drill prepares for a fire. If a fire starts, it will be under control a lot sooner because the firefighters know how to get in there quickly with the hoses and then get out.
By May 20 it will have been long enough to return most or all the authority to the legislature. The idea is not to prolong the emergency but to resolve it and return to the well-established systems that were designed for normal times.
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, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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