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Barred from Capitol due to pandemic, Connecticut lobbyists face hurdles during critical legislative session

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    HARTFORD, Connecticut (Hartford Business Journal) — Swearing in of lawmakers, organizational committee meetings, and other rituals marking the start of the state legislative session may seem a tad corny or incidental for some, but you can bet your bottom dollar that most lobbyists will be present.

Count DeVaughn Ward among them. A lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, Ward will be fighting this session to push a recreational pot legalization bill over the finish line, something that’s proven difficult during recent attempts, despite support from Gov. Ned Lamont and public polls.

So Ward would surely seize on an opportunity to be seen, shake some hands, trade intel and chat up powerful committee chairs and newly-elected freshmen lawmakers alike.

Instead, thanks to COVID-19 safety precautions, Ward on Jan. 6 — opening day of the 2021 legislative session — was at home 40 miles away from downtown Hartford, watching the swearing in of lawmakers and other proceedings online.

Lobbyists are known for their ability to work a room, but those recently interviewed by Hartford Business Journal said the pandemic has thrown that element out the window. With the public (which includes lobbyists) barred from entering the Capitol for at least the next few months, if not the entire 2021 regular legislative session that runs until early June, Ward and his peers in the state’s $90 million lobbying industry will be forced to rely on phone calls, emails, texts and videoconferences to connect with lawmakers and staff.

“A lot of these conversations and introductions are being done electronically — you’re emailing and saying ‘hey I’m with the Marijuana Policy Project,’ ” said Ward, who’s grateful that he’s worked in the Capitol for the past decade and can get in touch quickly with key players. “It’s really hard if you don’t have existing connections with folks. I don’t have as big of a barrier, but it is tough.”

Lobbyists report that legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers are doing their best to be reachable in a timely fashion, but they worry there’s simply no substitute for the steady frenzy of in-person interaction that typically happens inside the Capitol during the legislative session.

At stake, of course, are the interests of their clients, many of which include major businesses, hospitals, nonprofits and other organizations that are the lifeblood of Connecticut’s economy.

“Being able to have a face-to-face conversation with a legislator or staff member prior to a public hearing, committee vote, or floor vote about information that is relevant to their decision is often critical,” said Patrick McCabe, managing partner at .Capitol Strategies Group, a Hartford-based firm that’s lobbied for fantasy sports operators DraftKings and FanDuel, which will continue their push this session to legalize sports betting in Connecticut.

Patricia “Paddi” LeShane, CEO of Hartford’s Sullivan & LeShane Inc., one of the largest lobbying firms in the state, said she has worked hard to maintain contact with lawmakers amid the increased precautions and restrictions.

That’s included virtual luncheons and other events, like, back in the fall, mingling at an outdoor, socially-distanced barbecue. LeShane’s client roster includes the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, Connecticut State Medical Society and various energy developers and other firms, and she will be pursuing reforms to the state’s bottle bill and to make permanent the telemedicine services that have become permissible and popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other policies, she said.

LeShane said there’s no question lobbying remotely will present challenges, but she takes comfort in the fact that her peers and competitors are in the same boat.

“Virtual is great, but it really plays down the people part of the process,” LeShane said. “I think everybody is concerned about the fact that you can’t just yell down from the second floor saying ‘hey can you grab so and so and meet me in the office to talk about this bill?’ ”

Making new connections, planning ahead
No matter who lobbyists have on speed dial, several said it’s been tougher than normal to get acquainted with the legislature’s crop of newly-elected members. While they may be less politically powerful, freshman lawmakers still cast votes and can act as catalysts for legislation if they feel strongly about it.

“Sometimes the newer folks are much more enamored about getting things done quickly,” said William “Bill” Malitsky, co-principal of FOCUS Government Affairs, a West Hartford-based lobbying firm that counts AIG, IBM, Knights of Columbus and Greater New Haven Chamber among its clients.

Some firms are tweaking their staffing and workflow to ensure lobbyists can keep adequate track of hearings and meetings that will be broadcast on CT-N and YouTube. Advanced planning and scheduling of calls with lawmakers and others is a bigger focus in the remote environment, but the session is still young, and the situation has even the most senior Capitol lobbyists wondering how it’s going to play out, particularly as various bills and budget negotiations enter their later, more nitty-gritty stages.

“It’s a mystery as to how it’s going to work, to some degree,” said Jay F. Malcynsky, managing partner at Gaffney, Bennett and Associates, who has lobbied at the Capitol since the 1980s and counts Eversource, General Electric and other major companies as clients.

“It’ll be about trying to adjust to changes in how the building normally works. As much as legislating can be characterized as organized chaos, there is some magic about the way that building works when people have access to it.”

Some hope the Capitol building will reopen by April or May, though they continue to plan based on the assumption that the entire session will be remote.

“I think we have to prepare for that possibility,” said FOCUS co-principal James S. Paolino. “But we are hopeful to be back in the building. We’re so used to it, it’s ingrained in our DNA, it’s how we do things.”

However, House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) said no one should count on returning to the building this spring, despite the COVID vaccine rollout underway.

“The reality is I would be surprised if between now and June 9 [when the session ends] we’re going to allow the public in the building, but we’ll never foreclose that possibility,” Ritter said.

Lobbyists aren’t the only ones challenged by the new reality.

Ritter said remote legislating is bound to slow down the normal pace of business over the coming months for lawmakers too, particularly during the flurry of negotiations over budget and policy bills later in the session.

“Negotiations are always easier in person,” he said. “It’s hard to read body language on a computer, sometimes people speak over each other or they break up, but we will get things done, it will just be harder to get things done.”

Slower process
With legislators slowed by remote processes, they are expected to prioritize what legislation they raise, which means interest groups may have to compete for limited opportunities.

However, some are anticipating that there will be more provisions crammed into bills by the time they get toward the finish line.

That puts additional pressure on lobbyists, said FOCUS’ Malitsky, who referred to the potentially thicker bills as “aircraft carriers.”

“It makes our job perhaps that much more critical,” he said.

Malcynsky, of Gaffney, Bennett and Associates, said many lobbying clients understand they should temper their expectations for legislative wins this session, especially with a lot of focus likely to be on policies meant to lessen pandemic-related human and economic suffering. But that doesn’t mean clients are sitting the session out either.

“Clients with a perennial presence at the Capitol realize they still need to be in the game, whatever the rules are,” Malcynsky said. “Things haven’t changed in that regard.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora (R-North Branford) said he’s concerned that lawmakers being further removed from the public could embolden support for legislative initiatives that his party and constituents oppose, such as a public-option-style healthcare plan.

“I am concerned with the number of bills Democrats are raising and the issues they are going to pursue, because we have to recognize that public input is more limited,” Candelora said.

The bright side
While there are lots of cons to a remote legislative session, there are some pros too, depending on who you ask.

For example, the public can testify at bill hearings from the comfort of their homes, without having to alter their regular schedules to drive to the Capitol and wait in a potentially lengthy line of speakers. Every legislative meeting will also be streamed online this year, as opposed to only certain meetings in prior sessions.

For those who earn their living from the legislative session, the remote nature this year may mean there’s technically no reason to physically be in Connecticut at all.

Ward, the marijuana lobbyist, said he may travel to Hawaii in the coming weeks and do his lobbying work remotely.

“For me, this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I have to be able to work anywhere in the world,” he said.

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