Gary Winfield and Jorge Cabrera joined fellow state lawmakers in seizing a chance this year to move Connecticut in a more just direction — and found a governor from their own party standing in the way.
Winfield is a Democratic state senator from New Haven, first elected in 2008. Cabrera is a Democratic state senator from Hamden, first elected in 2020. Both came to elected office from activism on the outside, Winfield in the police accountability movement, Cabrera in labor; and have worked on translating those goals into legislation.
In the state legislative session just completed, they and their colleagues succeeded in winning victories they’d sought for decades: Recreational use of marijuana became legal as of Thursday. A new municipal aid formula will send tens of millions of dollars more than in the past in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for communities like New Haven, where more than half of the grand list is tax-exempt. A bill championed for years by New Haven lawmakers to end prison gerrymandering became law.
Winfield and Cabrera celebrated those victories in an appearance Thursday on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program. (Click on above video tow watch it.)
They also spoke about what could have happened this session, but didn’t, because of resistance from Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, when it came to confronting criminal justice reform and inequality.
Even on a victory — legalization of recreational use of marijuana — Lamont proved the final hurdle for Winfield, who has championed the proposal for years and shepherded it to passage this year as co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Winfield negotiated compromises with lawmakers from around the state to pass a bill that not only lets people light up for fun, but, unlike in other states, ensures that profits from sales and benefits of revenues flow to communities hardest hit by the drug war.
After the bill passed the Senate, in the closing days of the session, Lamont threatened to veto it unless an “equity” clause was changed. He claimed he was concerned about people in wealthier communities being able to benefit from obtaining licenses just because they had prior marijuana-related offenses; advocates like New Haven State Rep. Robyn Porter sensed a different possible motivation in the last-minute move to kill the bill.
In either case, for the third time in the session, Winfield scrambled and pulled together enough votes to get legalization passed, and it became law.
He had less luck with the “PROTECT ACT.”
Supported by a grassroots statewide reform movement, Winfield seemed to have prevailed after years of pushing a measure to set rules for the use of isolation, physical restraints, and limits on visitation behind bars in Connecticut. The PROTECT ACT, which addressed those goals, passed both houses. It would have banned keeping inmates in cells for more than 16 1/2 hours a day outside of emergencies; created an official ombudsman’s office to probe inmates’ complaints; and allowed inmates at least 60 minutes of in-person visits each week.
Then Winfield and advocates were caught by surprise Wednesday when Lamont vetoed the bill. The governor acted after corrections workers rallied against the bill, expresses concern that it would tie their hands in keeping themselves and prisoners safe.
Lamont had not notified Winfield, according to Winfield, a leading Democrat from the city that delivers the largest victory margin for state Democratic candidates, in advance that he was considering the veto. He didn’t seek a conversation about it, Winfield said.
Instead Lamont — who has hired retired federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy as a top legal advisor — issued a veto message explaining his rationale after the fact. He claimed that he “fully supports the purpose of this legislation, to make certain that isolated confinement is not used.” He wrote that the bill as written “places unreasonable and dangerous limits on the use of restraints” by limiting the ability to apply handcuffs to corrections officers with the rank of at least captain and limiting to therapists permission to order restraints in psychological emergencies.
A spokesman for the governor countered by saying both Dannehy and Chief of Staff Paul Mounds had in fact informed Winfield of their concerns and the potential for a veto in the days before the governor returned the bill without his signature.)
While vetoing the bill, Lamont issued an executive order that limits disciplinary isolated confinement to 15 days and allows “at least two hours of out-of-cell time each day.” He criticized the visitation rule for enabling the potential smuggling of drugs to incarcerated dealers, and the ombudsman provision for potentially jeopardizing confidentiality of sensitive records. He argued that that accomplishes the bill’s purpose.
Winfield didn’t see it that way. He called Lamont’s veto a mistake based on misinformation.
“While I’m frustrated with the veto, I’m not surprised,” Winfield said in the “Dateline” interview. “This administration has been a little bit difficult when it comes to criminal justice.”
He argued that anyone who “read the bill” would see that it addresses Lamont’s concerns: It allows lower-ranking corrections officers to apply restraints in emergencies if captains aren’t around. It delays implementation of the bill for a year so the Department of Correction can hammer out details with the legislature. It would guard against people incarcerated for drug offenses from obtaining contraband during visits.
With this veto, injustices involving unfair restraint and lack of in-person contact will remain, Winfield argued, and the need for improved independent review of inmate complaints will continue unaddressed. Even the advances contained in Lamont’s executive order are good only for as long as the current governor is in office, he noted: Unlike a law, an executive order can easily be canceled by a successor with different views.
“If we are going to have solitary confinement, we need to have rules, and those rules need to be hard to break,” he said.
Democrats also had hopes of addressing income inequality this session, given the state’s consistent rankings as having among the widest income gaps in the nation.
Cabrera campaigned on raising taxes for the wealthy — specifically upping the income tax rate for annual income above $500,000 a year.
Then Lamont made it clear that he wouldn’t sign any tax increases. In a year when wealthy New Yorkers migrated to Connecticut, Lamont argued that he doesn’t want to drive rich people out of the state. He also consistently argued that upping income or capital gains taxes on the wealthy constitutes “punishing success.”
“We missed an opportunity to really tackle income inequality in Connecticut. The governor was pretty adamant” that their proposals were off the table, Cabrera said during Thussday’s “Dateline” appearance.
He raised concerns that when the wave of federal pandemic relief money currently coming to the state dries up in a few years, the state will again lack the ability to raise needed money to help working families and the poor because of this lost chance to advance “structural change” to the tax code.
The last time Connecticut government studied the difference in how the wealthy are taxed compared to everyone else, it revealed a dramatic difference: The lowest-income households (earning up to $48,000 a year in adjusted gross income) paid 23.6 percent of their pay on state and local taxes. Middle-class households paid 13 percent. The top 10 percent of earners, 10 percent. And the top 1 percent? Just 7.5 percent — less than a third of what the lowest-income taxpayers fork over.
That study, by the Department of Revenue Services, was conducted in 2014. In the wake of those findings, opponents of changing the system have blocked any updated studies from taking place. That will change — this session the legislature passed a law requiring a new study, as a first step to revisiting the issue.
Winfield grew emotional on “Dateline” when assessing the divide within his party on income inequality and help for the poor.
“What frustrates me is, we’re not having a conversation about the real lives that people live. We’re having conversations about some imaginary poor person who’s trying to milk the system and the good rich people,” he said (beginning at the 35:40 point in the above video).
“That’s not the way this works. There are terrible rich people and great rich people. There are poor people who are trying to milk the system and poor people who are trying to do everything they’re supposed to do. We should not be creating policy because of the most extreme. We should be creating policy with the intention that this state works for everyone who lives in it. We’re not having conversations about the effective tax rate, what it costs to be poor.
“Until my party chooses to have that conversation about what it is to sit there even though you have to count pennies and nickels and quarters even though you have a job, what it is to worry about making sure that your kid makes it to 12th grade because you live in a certain community, we will be fighting this fight. And I’m in this fight until I can’t be in this fight anymore. It is a fight we should be fighting.”
He and Cabrera resolved to do just that when the legislature next convenes.
This reminds me of the initial discussions we had back in the late 90s to abolish the death penalty. Then Governor Weicker and his staff at the time agreed to an almost complete abolishment – the only exception being retaining the death penalty for those already incarcerated for life, who then went on to kill a corrections officer in the line of duty. But the liberal New Haven delegation wouldn’t go for it, so the death penalty remained on the books until Malloy abolished it, some twenty years later. The perfect became the enemy of the good, and corrections workers were treated like toilette paper – disposable.
Secondly, I have been writing to Winfield all year, because criminal convictions are sold (data is valuable) to private companies, so that when a potential employer runs a background check, they utilize private databases who rarely comport w/ the pardons process or second chance society norms. While the state will – in a convoluted sense – not even wipe records clean, but simply, on request for data, dispose then and there that data that has been expunged, there is no legal requirement for private companies to do so. So for all the hoopoola and fan fare for “second chances” and “expungement” and the “cleansing” of weed convictions under the new legal weed bill, it is illusory. Because private data firms will actually charge convicts for the privilege to comport w/ state law and wipe their convictions clean. All my calls to Winfield went unanswered, so the “second chance” bill is literally meaningless, b/c 90% + of employers use cheaper private data centers. This is what happens when lawmakers simply get reinstalled b/c they have Ds after their name – legislation becomes sloppy.
The state legislature should immediately redress and address this gross error in the new law. In other words, sure the state will cleanse your record, but not the actual data bases where the conviction lives on. Major f up from legislators who lack nuance and skill.
I agree with most of the actions that both of these legislators decide to pursue. And the bigger question is of representation of an entire state. The NHI does not claim to do that. Never have. They appeal to a limited market, that may swing elections in the New Haven area only. And these legislators have very few allies in the house and senate in Hartford, because the few cities in this state, with similar constituencies, and problems, gives them representation in Hartford, that may only cover from 11% to 23% of the states voters, and citizens. Marijuana legislation was delayed as different legislators were trying to control who would receive the franchises. And in the end only people directly connected with the most powerful legislators in the state, even the one’s who did not put in the work on the law, will be using political influence in determining who gets wealthy by acquiring the license . The taxes will be gathered and “disappear” into state government spending that has no quality control, to see if services paid for are rendered, and construction paid for is done correctly, safely. (Billions in highway and building construction, with not one contractor ever held accountable for work done that is under quality, dangerous, and shoddy, so as to increase the amount of state taxpayers money they pocket as profit.) So thank you to the NHI for a very well written campaign add.
Lamont has always seemed to prefer not to think or talk about racial and criminal justice issues, and with the PROTECT Act veto he’s gone a step beyond ignoring them, to listening exclusively to the easily-debunked talking points of Senate Republicans and CO unions. If he had concerns with the bill, why not meet with Winfield or with the advocates who have been pushing it?
And for all the anti-progressives who claim to be budget realists, refusing to raise state revenues and plugging the gap with one-time federal pandemic payments is astonishingly irresponsible. Just look at that breakdown of how much income tax people pay across the income distribution, and tell me we don’t have a tax code problem in CT.
Connecticut deserves better than Lamont, and if anyone steps up to challenge him from the left next year, I’ll be out knocking doors for them!
And to those who want to complain about the tax code – the vast majority of income taxes paid in this state come from lower Fairfield County – followed by middle income residents.
I’m impressed—you must really think you have a lot of credibility among NHI readers to just make these types of claims with no references/evidence/data whatsoever!
As it turns out, the majority of income tax receipts each year do not come from Fairfield County, let alone the “vast majority” from “lower” Fairfield County (whatever that means).
Readers who are interested in data can see each county’s share of average annual income tax receipts here, along with average annual receipts per capita here; the source data I used to generate these charts can be found here.
(As for your other statements—“the specious argument that…”, “you will never be able to tax the rich so much that…”, “the poor pay virtually zero taxes”—I’m not even going to waste time addressing those until you bring some evidence to bear. Otherwise I’m going to assume you’re continuing to talk out of your… well, not your mouth… just as you were with the “lower Fairfield county” claim.)