With two weeks to go in the 2014 legislative session, veteran Capitol watchers are waiting to see whether an unusual House defeat of a Senate bill will affect other business. Will a just-below-the-surface animosity between Senate President Don Williams and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey endanger other bills in this short session of the General Assembly?
Two weeks ago the Senate passed legislation to ban genetically engineered grass seed even though the product is not yet commercially available but is in development. Williams made it clear the bill was a priority for him. Then, in a nearly unheard of move 24 hours later, the House took up the bill only to defeat it.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sen. Beth Bye of the House action. However, Bye also expressed confidence that the leadership of the House and Senate can get past this particular episode and address important business in the time remaining.
From working in the state Senate for years, The Shad can tell you that the Democratically controlled Senate and House never bring out a bill only to soundly defeat it. If it’s not to the other chamber’s liking, the Senate president or the speaker of the House just won’t bring the bill out.
The House move was an in-your-face slap to the Senate. Speaker Brendan Sharkey was almost trying to embarrass Williams. Speculation on the reason for Sharkey’s move abounds. Here is some:
• Williams didn’t communicate with Sharkey on the bill and let him know it was a priority for him. Sharkey claims Williams never had a conversation with him on the bill.
• The bill didn’t go through the regular legislative process and there was no public hearing. This is usually the complaint Republicans raise when majority Democrats bring out a bill that was fast-tracked past the committee hearing process or offered as an amendment to a germane—or relevant—bill. A bill with no hearing is not uncommon.
• Sharkey genuinely had reservations about the bill. This may be true but again, he could have just stuck the bill at the bottom of the calendar and address other, more pressing matters.
• The Shad believes the dispute between the Senate and House goes back to last year’s debate on the GMO labeling bill. For all the talk about getting past disagreements between the House and Senate, I believe the real reason for Sharkey embarrassing the Senate lies in how the GMO food labeling bill became law last year. Williams wanted a strong GMO food labeling bill, Sharkey and Gov. Dannel Malloy favored a weaker one according to those close the process. Deftly navigating the media, Williams maneuvered to pass a “compromise” that was more to his liking and closer to the stronger bill.
The House passed the compromise after some back and forth with the Senate and Gov. Malloy signed it into law. But there is a very good chance some hard feelings over the how the GMO food labeling bill became law still exist and Sharkey has a long memory.
Fast forward to this year and the GMO grass seed bill. There could have been spillover and that is why the House took the route it did.
For his part, Williams chooses not to talk about the GMO grass seed bill and instead focus on the business at hand in the short time left.