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Extend the Governor’s emergency powers to defeat the COVID pandemic

Former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp.

Alex Knopp served two terms as Mayor of Norwalk (2001-05) and eight terms as Norwalk State Representative (1987-2001). He recently ended 14 years as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.

I urge the General Assembly today in its special session to vote to approve the limited extension of public health-related executive orders as requested by Gov. Ned Lamont for the reason that the Covid crisis has not yet ended in Connecticut. The type of flexibility and efficiency inherent in executive responses against the virus are still necessary for at least the next several months.

“These orders are still needed to protect the public and continue critical measures to provide healthcare access and economic relief and respond to evolving changes,” Lamont wrote to state legislators on July 8. “They are also narrowly targeted to achieve specific goals that would otherwise be unachievable because of statutory or regulatory barriers that were not contemplated in the context of a highly transmissible and long-lasting disease outbreak when the statutes were passed.”

The Covid pandemic over the past 16 months caused more than 600,000 deaths and millions of hospitalizations in the United States. It strained the capacity of almost every public, private and nonprofit institution in our country, shutting state capitols and schools, closing businesses, imposing public health mandates, and causing especially severe hardships in underserved communities.  Relationships between the federal government and the states, between the states and localities, and between governments and citizens all entered unchartered territory.

To respond to this once-in-a-century pandemic, the standard model of public health federalism that had evolved over the last 50 years was deployed in nearly every state. This federal-state division of responsibilities left the declaration of public health emergencies and the imposition of masking, social distancing and other health mandates to the states with the federal government attempting to provide funding, research, production and distribution of vaccines, PPT and other resources back to the states. Governors in nearly every state assumed wide new powers.

In Connecticut this crisis governing model was activated when Gov. Lamont declared a public health emergency on March 10, 2020, to invoke his existing statutory authority. By all accounts, his subsequent use of executive authority, while extensive and unprecedented, was exercised judiciously and carefully, as evidenced by the fact that political opponents were unable or unwilling when challenged to propose any specific executive order they would revoke. Despite these measures, 8,000 Connecticut residents have died, as the Covid virus struck vulnerable populations like the elderly in nursing homes and caused economic ruin for small businesses, restaurant owners and retailers.

The restrictions imposed by Lamont were challenged by affected individuals and business organizations. Ruling on these legal challenges filed against the state government, the Connecticut Supreme Court, along with state superior courts and the federal district court, declared that under this state crisis model Lamont had not exceeded his statutory authority and that the delegation of this rule-making authority by the General Assembly was consistent with the Connecticut Constitution and its distribution of powers among the three branches of government. As part of the constitutional lawmaking process even during the crisis, the Legislature twice ratified Lamont’s executive orders and extended the duration of his emergency authority.

Most importantly, Connecticut’s implementation of the state’s leadership role in a public health crisis has been among the most effective response of any state in suppressing the spread of Covid-19.

As public health measures and vaccination campaigns significantly reduced the spread and severity of the Covid virus, the Legislature on May 20 revised the emergency statutes, both to enhance their legislative authority to veto any executive order and to shorten the duration of each new emergency declaration. In addition, the new law extended certain executive orders until July 20.

Now the question is: Should the July 20 deadline be extended at Lamont’s request until Sept. 30?

I believe the answer is “yes,” for the following reasons:

First, Connecticut still needs to maintain public health precautions in the face of both remaining pockets of illness and concern about the accelerated spread of the new Delta variant in other states. Fully 30 percent of Connecticut residents have not received even one vaccine dose and 1.5 million residents are not fully vaccinated.

Second, the request is limited both in duration until Sept. 30 and in scope, seeking extension of only 11 orders. The request is not open-ended. The landscape can be reexamined in the fall.

Third, the governor’s request appropriately identifies key policy areas where the flexibility, timeliness and adaptability of executive orders in the face of unknown public health developments are still needed. These include: masking and remote learning requirements when public schools reopen in the fall; the location and management of new vaccine clinics; extending the masking authority of the state Dept. of Public Health; setting Covid safety policies for early childhood centers; and providing congregate housing for the homeless in hotels.

Fourth, extension of the health emergency will facilitate Connecticut’s access to federal “rescue” funds.

 

The argument of Republican leaders and others against the extension is unpersuasive because it is based on the faulty premise that the Covid virus has been eliminated.  “The emergency is over,” said the founder of “No Tolls CT” at a Capitol rally on July 12, as many held “Dump King Ned” signs. “The emergency is over. Covid is contained,” State Rep. Mark Anderson told the crowd [CT News Junkie, 7/12/21]. The fact that one-third of Connecticut’s population is unvaccinated itself demonstrates that the threat of the virus is neither “over” nor sufficiently “contained.”

Based on this unscientific outlook, the Republican Senate leadership even expressed its intention to default on the state’s current effort to maximize federal dollars for Connecticut. The two top Senate Republican leaders issued a statement against the extension, asserting: “We also have federal funding pouring in regardless of an emergency declaration, including hundreds of millions of dollars that still haven’t even been allocated.” It is worth noting that the legislative session to approve the allocations isn’t even scheduled to begin until September!

The better view on seeking federal funding was expressed by the Governor’s spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson: “The continuation of these emergencies [declarations] will also allow us to access millions of dollars in federal funding and FEMA reimbursement that could otherwise be left on the table.” [Hartford Courant, 7/12/21]

The real underlying political purpose of Monday’s rally and the partisan rhetoric was correctly identified by the CT Mirror: “Aided by talk radio hosts, Republicans tried Monday [at the rally] to gauge the political value of residual resentment towards Gov. Ned Lamont over COVID-19 restrictions that largely disappeared in May as infections plummeted.” [CT Mirror, 7/13/21]

Even though I endorse extending these extraordinary executive powers in the short run, I also urge that policymakers conduct a serious examination of the state’s public health emergency statutes by empaneling a blue ribbon commission to review the public health emergency operations of the three branches of government over the last 18 months. We should learn from this crisis about how to better protect democratic values while improving the efficiency and accountability of the government’s actions– even as we hope that such extraordinary powers won’t be needed again for another 100 years.

11 comments

Diane Lauricella July 14, 2021 at 12:56 am

Thank you Alex for this thoughtful analysis.
I agree that the COVID crisis is not over, and that these limited extensions of select protections are very appropriate considering the Delta variant is increasing its presence in the northeast and beyond.

DryAsABone July 14, 2021 at 9:02 am

Spoken like a true believer in the efficacy of Big Government.
Question…would supporters of the extension feel the same if Dan Malloy were in office? Ned has done OK but the party is,or should be, over. The legislature should have to show up for work and at least pretend that
a balanced democracy is in effect.

John O'Neill July 14, 2021 at 1:54 pm

The problem with your premise is it’s sets a bad precedent. As a lawyer I would think that’s always a concern to you. By setting this precedent what if Donald Trump happened to be CT Governor? By all rights he would/should be granted all the power you’re handing Lamont. I’m sure your position would be different if that was the case. BUT, if precedent had been set previously why would it be different.
The slippery slope of not looking a politics multi-dimensionally is dangerous AND expensive. Oak Hills Park Authority found that out the hard way with the monstrosity of a restaurant forced upon them by the Mayor at that time. I forget his name but maybe someone reading this can enlighten us.

Mimi Chang July 14, 2021 at 4:51 pm

Ned Lamont’s emergency powers have been extended, and I just saw video from CT-N of a Democrat State Representative named Robyn Porter, testifying that Ned Lamont’s office threatened that there will be ramifications for Democrat State Reps if they voted No. Robyn Porter, who stated that she will not be intimidated into voting differently than what she believes is right for her constituents, is one courageous woman who speaks the truth. The video footage can easily be found on social media. I’d love to hear what Alex Knopp thinks of a Governor who bullies and threatens Democrat State Representatives into submission.

Alex Knopp July 14, 2021 at 10:44 pm

I thank all the people submitting comments for giving me the benefit of their opinions. In response to Mimi Chang, I never approve of bullying of any kind, especially against legislators, but I have not had time yet to view the social media so I can’t comment on any specific example that may have been cited. In reply to DryAsABone, my guess is that former Gov. Malloy would have followed the science in the same general manner as Gov. Lamont has done. As to John O’Neill’s comments, which have been made in responses to several of my other Op Eds on NON, I will reply about my plans for Oak Hills and the restaurant from my tenure as Norwalk’s Mayor after I return after next week from visiting my family out of state as I don’t think Mr. O’Neill, based on his criticisms, has ever understood my proposals.

DryAsABone July 15, 2021 at 7:46 am

John O’Neil rasied the same point I did…it seems that as long as one agrees with the politics of the person in charge, granting emergency powers is OK. It is a very,very dangerous precident especially since we only have the possibility of an emergency and even then, the state may not recognize one as it will be “bad for business”.
A guess about Malloy’s general manners is not something I would bet on, nor should any right-minded individual. HIs resord speaks for him.
And we absolutely know what would happen with Trump.

Mimi Chang July 15, 2021 at 11:02 am

Thank you for your response, Mr. Knopp. I hope you are enjoying your time away with family. For your and NON readers’ quick perusal, I’m including a link where State Representative Robyn Porter speaks out about Democrat State Representatives being threatened with ramifications for voting No to the extension:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MkNedNu21ig&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0ejfc5iekxQUnCzhcOGd2GDXN6s86e3YEzdHTLcsGLhctxsiA1SOvwXLI

Regardless of whether or not one felt emergency powers should be extended at this point, that Governor Lamont’s Office has been exposed as threatening Democrat State Representatives who vote No with ramifications is highly disturbing, dehumanizing of those individuals, and not exactly a shining example of checks and balances and Democracy at work up in Hartford.

I wonder, what ramifications exactly will the No voters be subjected to? There aren’t too many options. Character libel? Blacklisting? Career sabotage? Ridicule and humiliation over social media? Maybe we have to keep a close eye on what happens to the nine who voted against? I now wonder how frequently State Representatives are bullied into submission behind the scenes, which would certainly influence how the aspiring career politicians amongst them who fear retribution vote on legislation.

Courageous Robyn Porter deserves the utmost respect for speaking up and exposing the dark underbelly of Hartford’s machine politics. Her transparency is to be admired. I respect that she has made it clear that she won’t be intimidated into submission, and that she stands up for what she feels is right for her constituents. We need more Robyn Porters up in Hartford.

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