Connecticut lobbyists back at Capitol after two years to influence legislation

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Lobbying is the art of personal persuasion, reading body language, and making follow-up points.

That is very hard to do on the phone or on Zoom.

For the past two years, lobbyists disappeared from the state Capitol as the building was closed to the general public for fear of spreading the coronavirus. Now, mask-wearing lobbyists say they are happy to be back after having little personal access to lawmakers during the entire pandemic.

While it is impossible to roll back the clock, both legislators and lobbyists say that some legislation might have been changed over the past two years if the advocates could have lobbied more aggressively and in person as they always did in the past.

“I think there are a lot of bills that would have been different had the building been open,” said House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford. “I’m glad that the advocates are back in the building to be able to have their positions be heard so that we can make better legislation.”

Candelora cited the controversial police accountability bill that was passed largely on party lines by the Democratic-controlled legislature in July 2020 and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont. Advocates did not say they would have blocked the complicated, 71-page bill entirely but say they might have softened some provisions that officers believe were too tough on police.

Police unions were particularly concerned about changes in “qualified immunity" regarding civil lawsuits that could be brought against officers on a personal basis. Legislators still disagree about the impact of the provision with some saying it makes it easier to file lawsuits regarding split-second, on-duty decisions and others saying that the only major impact would be against officers who acted recklessly, rather than making a good-faith mistake. The issue was so close that a Republican amendment failed on a tie vote.

Candelora also cited the banning of “consent” searches that officers say lead to fewer guns and drugs being taken off the streets during routine traffic stops. Democrats, though, say that officers still have wide latitude on “consent" searches that would allow them to search a vehicle if they have probable cause because, for example, they saw a gun sticking out from under a seat.

House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford declined to comment about the police or other individual bills, but he said he is glad to see the lobbyists back in the Capitol because they provide a wealth of information about important bills that he personally needed to provide at times.

“During COVID, when we would have caucuses, it was hard because it really falls on the chair and in many cases myself [and other top leaders] too often have to answer every question because many members would say, ‘I’m not on that committee, and I’m not familiar with that bill, and I’m not sure what you’re talking about,’ " Ritter said in an interview. “Emails are often form emails, and they aren’t always well-drafted. One of the hardest parts is not having a lot of different opinions that people can ask questions about.”

Deputy Speaker Robert Godfrey of Danbury, one of the longest-serving legislators who was first elected in 1988, said he learns information from lobbyists in the hallways and the first-floor cafeteria in the Legislative Office Building that is connected by a tunnel to the Capitol.

“What we do for a living is schmooze, and not being able to do that for two years just crippled our thinking," Godfrey said in an interview. “Since the Citizens Election Program [that created public financing of campaigns], lobbyists are less influential, but they’re still effective and necessary because that’s where I and most of my colleagues go for real information. Taking it with a grain of salt and understanding it’s one-sided, but then I get to talk to the lobbyist on another side of an issue and get the full information from the two differing points of view."

Godfrey added, “The advocates I need information from are back, and that’s very helpful in my decision-making."

The lobbyists traditionally gather in a relatively small area on the second floor, outside the historic Hall of the House chamber and outside the caucus rooms. They work in spots around the entire building, but the second floor is the epicenter, where they stand behind velvet ropes that separate them from legislators.

Brian Anderson, a longtime lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME, said being outside of the building made it more difficult to deliver his message over the past two years.

“Lobbying is a face-to-face business,” Anderson said in an interview. “Something gets left out in Zoom. You can’t read people’s reactions. ... I can wait by a legislator’s parking space. I can’t wait on a cellphone.”

With other colleagues, Anderson worked hard in representing police officers on legislation following the death of George Floyd, who was died handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis.

“I think the police accountability bill would have been substantially different if we could have talked to rank-and-file legislators about it," Anderson said. “When you can’t talk to rank-and-file legislators, the chairs become all-powerful."

Anderson declined to outline the specific points that might have been different, but said it was important to be back in the building with his lobbying colleagues.

Besides the police bill, Candelora says a multi-pronged recycling bill that passed in June 2021 would have been different if lobbyists could have worked the bill more. The measure, the largest expansion of the Connecticut bottle bill in decades, doubled the deposit on cans and bottles to 10 cents — starting in January 2024 — and widely expanded the items being recycled.

One of the problems, he said, is that the bill did not include enough safeguards to prevent residents from Rhode Island, where there is no bottle bill, from crossing over the state border and collecting deposit money when they never purchased the products in Connecticut.

Lawmakers and lobbyists also cited a complicated, 300-page bill that legalized recreational marijuana last year and set a high bar that makes it highly expensive for some entities to get involved in the newly legal industry.

Despite complaints, the pandemic did have a major impact on public hearings by vastly expanding the number of witnesses through Zoom. Previously, all witnesses needed to appear in person — with many speaking only for the limit of three minutes — in a system that forced them to wait many hours before speaking. Now, they could pass those hours at home before testifying by Zoom.

On the crowded, noisy area outside the House chamber, lobbyist Joelyn Leon of the state AFL-CIO said the hearings are quieter than the hurly burly of lobbyists trying to reach legislators for a few brief moments before they head to the second-floor caucus rooms.

“There were some benefits to it with Zoom," Leon said with numerous lobbyists standing only feet away in each direction. “You had that one-on-one, and there was none of this chaos in the background."

Josh Hughes, a longtime lobbyist who now works for a growing firm known as Capitol Consulting, said the business was drastically impacted by COVID-19.

“You look at robotics and see how technology can make things obsolete," Hughes said in an interview. “It took a pandemic to change our business. ... Physical expressions are 60% of the conversation. Body language is a big part of the conversation, and you can’t get that over Zoom."

State Rep. Greg Howard, a freshman lawmaker who has spent his short tenure in office under COVID conditions, said he has come to appreciate the hard work of lobbyists.

“There’s a stigma around lobbyists like they’re some sort of a crooked bunch of people," Howard said. “But lobbyists bring to the legislator expertise in a specific area. ... Legislators are part-time. It’s not always easy to keep up with your emails and meetings in a virtual world, whereas somebody can grab you quickly in a hallway where you’re passing through and can get your ear and you can then double-check whatever they’re talking about. Lobbyists bring subject-matter expertise and opinions beyond what we all have."

Lobbyist Jean Cronin, the wife of legendary lobbyist Carroll J. Hughes, who died earlier this year after nearly 50 years at the Capitol, agreed that the police, recycling, and marijuana bills all could have been changed.

Some bills “wouldn’t have passed or they would have passed differently," said Cronin, who has been lobbying for more than 30 years.

With about six weeks remaining in the session that ends May 4, Ritter expects that lobbyists will bring members of the general public to explain certain bills, such as members of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition that has a pay-raise deal pending before the legislature.

“The SEBAC agreement — that’s going to bring workers up" to the Capitol, Ritter said. “They’ll tell you that they are more effective when they can bring up members from people’s districts. You can talk all you want about pay raises, but ‘this is me in the flesh and I’m telling you about my life and my personal story.’ That, to me, is a big difference."

Ritter added, “Now, you have more voices in the Capitol, and I do think it will be helpful. When we do some of these bills and you hear personal stories from someone who lives in your hometown, that’s impactful to people. That really does matter."

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com