LETTER: Joint Favorable Reports – Works of Fiction or Unbiased Ways to Understand Bills?

Submitted by CT169Strong: Alexis Harrison – Fairfield; Tara Restieri – Greenwich; Maria Weingarten – New Canaan 

The “Joint Favorable Report” (JF) is a critical legislative document that is ideally a dispassionate, unbiased summary account of the oral and written testimony of any bill that receives a public hearing and moves to the floor. It is the historical legislative record of a bill that lives on and is often relied upon by legislators and referred to in subsequent years. Legislators who do not sit on the reviewing committee very often rely on the JF report to understand the bill, and review the summary of supporting or opposing testimony, with the inclusion of links to the full written testimony should they want further details.  Legislators often use the JF when deciding on a bill brought to the floor for a vote. Clearly, it is important that JF reports are thoughtful and accurate.

CT169Strong is a nonpartisan grassroots pro-homes, pro-communities, pro-municipality rights volunteer group. Its members, who testified against some of the zoning bills, discovered while reviewing materials that the JF report published by the Planning & Development Committee (P&D) on March 27th, for Governor Lamont’s bill, SB 985, erroneously misquoted and mischaracterized the testimony of CT169Strong’s Alexis Harrison and Tara Restieri as well as other residents. When the JF report was posted, we noted Ms. Harrison was misquoted as saying the bill was “laughable” and Ms. Restieri was misquoted as opposing the bill because it would “ruin local town character.” Neither Ms. Harrison nor Ms. Restieri made any such statements in their verbal or written testimonies. In fact, CT169Strong is supportive of aspects of the Governor’s bill and has proposed modifications to help increase local municipal participation and opt-ins.  

After sharing the inaccuracies with the P&D Committee, the SB985 JF was corrected for Ms. Harrison and Ms. Restieri’s testimony, however, 40+ other statements inaccurately lumped together were not corrected. Many of those 40+ SB985 testifiers also reached out to the committee requesting correction, which led to the second edited SB985 JF report also being retracted. Had CT169Strong not exercised the same due diligence with the JF reports as we do with zoning bills, our falsely summarized testimonies would have remained part of the permanent JF historical record, completely mischaracterizing members of our organization and the valid concerns with specific concepts and language in the bills. The P&D leadership’s response was that the issues raised were just “an isolated incident” due to newer staffing, even though the egregious errors occurred on three separate CT169Strong member testimonies. These concerns were also shared with the press, who also heard it characterized as “an isolated incident,” and did not report on issues with the JF Report.

Now two weeks later, we find yet another P&D JF Report, HB 6890, DesegregateCT’s “Live Work Ride” Bill, has questionable accounting of Public hearing and written testimony.  Of major concern is that in the JF report opposition testimony seems to be purposefully “cherry picked” to imply that any opposition to the bill was minor. In fact, there were numerous comments suggesting “serious,” “overreaching,” “punitive and threatening legislation”, including that of the Undersecretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy & Management (OPM) that specifically mentioned “concern” with the bill and the “wide reach of the proposed program.” 

One of the most important issues mentioned in 84 of 176 opposition testimonies to HB6890 was omitted: under this bill, municipalities that do not “opt in” and re-zone for high density development will be “deprioritized” from critical infrastructure funding, like brownfield remediation grants and loans, Urban Act, Main Street and Incentive Zone Housing Assistance funding. For the numerous municipalities with brownfield sites statewide, access to such funding is critically important to these communities, which bear the disproportionate and lasting effect of former industrial activities. Municipalities pursuing locally initiated redevelopment or remediation projects and relying on access to such federal and state grants, will now be “deprioritized” for funding unless they opt in to HB6890 with its high density rentals development around transit with a yet undefined onerous number of units and density determined solely by the state “Coordinator.”

The non-disclosure of numerous concerns around “deprioritizing” of infrastructure spending in testimonies, mischaracterizations of statements provided by OPM and by the executive director of WestCOG, and not appropriately highlighting opposition statements by local municipal leaders are clearly not isolated incidents.

Furthermore, supporting statements received more extensive coverage within the report, even though opposition testimonies outnumber supporting testimonies in both bills. Only four opposition testimonies offered a minor tangential mention of issues with brownfields and lack of municipal water supplies and the report never once stated the “deprioritization” language. As is clearly evidenced by the cherry picked testimony in SB985 and HB6890, one can only conclude that these reports as written are biased. 

Further we requested via email information from the P&D Committee Leadership on the existing process for JF report creation and the review process that allowed such a slanted JF report for SB985 to be posted to the state website, and to date, no response has been provided. We are still waiting, and now we have yet another report that raises even more questions. This lack of transparency is concerning to our members and should be to all residents of the state. All legislators should all take note and perform a detailed review of all JF Reports for their committees!

The good people of Connecticut invest their time and thoughtful consideration while exercising their rights as citizens to share their point-of-view and submit relevant testimony during Committee Public Hearings. Not providing an accurate accounting of testimony provided, is disrespectful of the proper legislative process, disrespectful to all  residents that participated in the public hearing process and disrespectful of fellow legislators outside of the committee that rely on these reports. Such malpractice must be rooted out, since it reduces the legislative process into a complete farce and a waste of time.  

The lack of a proper vetting process of JF reports before they are posted must be addressed and Committee Leadership and their staff must be held accountable if and when misrepresentations occur. The Public deserves the courtesy of serious, thoughtful and diligent treatment in the legislative process as residents testifying provide towards  legislators. Most importantly, legislators must remember that they are elected and they and their staff members must serve the people of our state with ethics and integrity. 

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our system operates under checks and balances and the consent of the governed. CT’s residents deserve much better than this and if the current state leadership and their staff cannot conduct themselves properly in their roles, it is incumbent upon we, the people, to shine a bright light on the issues and to bring about the change that is needed in our state governance. 

Sincerely yours,

Alexis Harrison – Fairfield
Tara Restieri – Greenwich
Maria Weingarten – New Canaan