Martin Looney had just received a new kidney. But Len Fasano couldn’t give him time to recuperate. The fate of Connecticut’s upcoming legislative session was at stake.
Republican Fasano phoned Looney, his Democratic counterpart in running the State Senate. While a nurse waited to check in on her patient, the two politicians from different parties found a solution that had eluded their staffs.
It took four minutes.
And it set the stage for solving more conflicts in what would be an historic challenge: How leaders from different parties could continue to run a State Senate that for the first time since 1893 had an even number of Democrats and Republicans. In a year when ever-growing deficits made it harder than anyone can remember to pass a budget.
Conneticut’s legislature went into extra innings trying to pass that budget. Lawmakers missed the July 1 deadline. They kept returning to the Capitol to hammer out new versions, amid recriminations and pressure from all sides of the political spectrum.
When Connecticut’s General Assembly finally passed a new $41.3 billion biennial budget on Oct. 26 — taking later, longer than it took any other legislature in the country — some people criticized lawmakers for taking so long, holding the fate of municipal budgets and social services agencies in agonizing limbo. Others called the final product a triumph of bipartisan legislating; members of both parties had to swallow bitter compromises.
Behind the scenes, Looney and Fasano managed to keep the process moving, overcome potential debilitating roadblocks, and avoid the personal attacks and political posturing for party bases that has plunged politics and governance into recrimination-laced dysfunction in much of the rest of the country.
That delicate balancing act is already being put to the test again over how to meet a $200 million-plus hold that has already opened in the budget.
“What has happened in the State Senate in particular is unique,” observed New Haven Republican Town Chair Jonathan Wharton, who teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University. “I’m not aware of [other] legislatures that have faced this tricky dynamic.” He called Looney’s and Fasano’s ability to get the job done this past session “admirable.”
The two veteran lawmakers did it by building on a relationship of trust developed since they first faced each other as attorneys from the opposite sides of real estate closings in the 1980s. And by defying the current culture of personal attacks and hyperpartisanship.
With a mixture of good-natured needling and evident mutual respect, Looney and Fasano recounted how they developed and preserved that relationship of trust in the most trying of times, during a joint appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
“We both agreed that we wanted to try to make it work. We didn’t want to use the excuse of possible gridlock to create actual gridlock,” Looney remarked. “We started thinking pragmatically: ‘How we were going to make this work?’ We tried to deal with it in a way that was fair and evenhanded and reflected good will on both sides.”
Even when a solution seemed near-impossible.
And even when one of them had been busy making sure he would stay alive.
That one would be Looney.
Looney has suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the neck and spine, since he was a teenager. He needed a new kidney. On Dec. 20, he underwent transplant surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital to get one.
Professionally it wasn’t the most convenient time to drop out of action. In the recently concluded elections, Republicans had gained enough seats to create an 18-18 tie in the State Senate. The Democratic lieutenant governor would be able to break tie votes. But in the day to day operation of the chamber, the parties would have to figure out new rules for how to staff and run committees, advance bills, hold votes.
As president pro tem of the chamber, Looney would be the Democrat in charge of that effort. As the former minority leader, to be the new “Republican pro tem,” Fasano would be the top Republican.
Despite their philosophical difference on the ideal size and scope of government and taxation, the pair had already had years of practice working across the aisle with each other. Before ascending to their current positions, they managed floor operations and coordinated votes as Senate majority and deputy minority leader. They spent years crafting, then passing, bipartisan legislation to limit “facility fees” charges to patients and to protect patient and doctor access to electronic health records in the face of purchases of physician practices by Yale-New Haven Hospital. They worked together — and against a Democratic governor — to ban “gag clauses” on pharmacists who wanted to help customers save money on prescription drugs.
A new legislation session was set to begin on Jan. 4. It promised to be a bruiser: The state’s quarterly revenue projections kept coming in well below projections, creating multi-million-dollar deficits, soon to be billion-dollar-plus deficits, that needed to be plugged. Republicans were determined to avoid any tax increases. Many Democrats were determined to avoid painful new cuts to aid to cities and the poor.
Looney has been a state legislator since 1980, Fasano since 2003. By session’s end, they would agree they had never encountered such a difficult session.
Already, as he underwent surgery, Looney had defied doctors’ advice and announced he planned to return to work on Jan. 4.
But now, a day later, as he recuperated, his attention was needed.
Looney, Fasano and their staffs had already made progress on how to share power in the upcoming session. They agreed that each legislative committee would have two Senate co-chairs, one from each party, for instance.
But their staffs hit a “bump in the road” on some procedural questions their staffs, such as how to avoid having one party prevent bills from getting out of committee because of the imbalance between the (narrow) House majority and the even Republican-Democratic split on each committee. (The legislature has joint House-Senate committees rather than separate versions of each committee in each chamber.)
Fasano knew he and Looney would have to agree on some broad solutions, and quickly. He didn’t know if it was too soon to call Looney the day after his surgery, though. He checked with Looney’s chief of staff, Vin Mauro, who gave him the green light.
“Marty accepted my phone call. I kind of took advantage of him because he was on heavy drugs,” Fasano joked. “We worked out a little bit of a problem that could have been bigger.
A nurse came in to do some follow-up tests. “Can you hang on a minute?” Looney’s wife asked her. “He’s working.”
After chatting first about Looney’s condition — he was feeling “weak, but not so bad” — they two agreed to come into session only on days when both sides had either all their members, or an even number of their members, present.
They also agreed that the Senate chairs of committees would avoid as much as possible “splitting their committees” in order to kill bills. “Splitting” is considered a “nuclear option.” It means having just senators, rather than senators and House reps alike, vote on Senate versions of bills in order to move them to the Senate floor. Splitting committees would make it easier for one party to kill a bill, because neither party had a majority of senators on a committee. The idea of avoiding splits as much as possible would require lawmakers to work together more in committee, Looney and Fasano reasoned — the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” would prevent gridlock.
Looney agreed to share the title of president pro tem by having Fasano become the “Republican president pro tem” rather than “minority leader.”
Each party had a senator who wouldn’t take office by opening day; Looney and Fasano agreed to time it so both parties’ last senators would file papers on the same day, so as not to upset the balance of power.
The conversation took four minutes. They knew their staffs could now fill in the fine print.
“I knew when we reached the impasse with the staff on the issue, the only person I could talk to was Marty,” Fasano said. “As a lawyer, when you do a contract with somebody, if you don’t trust the person on the other side, you can’t protect your client. Marty and I knew how each other operates.
“The deal was done. That was it. I knew our word was our word.”
On To The Session, & Beyond
But the hard work was only beginning.
As the regular session ground on, lawmakers kept receiving updates on how far out of whack were the state’s revenue projections — on which any budget would be based. Each update revealed bigger projected deficits. The number reached $5.1 billion.
It soon became clear that efforts to make a budget would not just dominate the session, but relegate almost all other legislative activity to the sidelines. Legalize pot? Some other year. Further criminal justice reforms? Good luck.
The end of June, and the regular session, came and went without a budget, despite a legal deadline.
A test of the Looney-Fasano relationship came in July, when the governor reached a deal with a coalition of state government unions for $1.6 billion concessions. Democrats supported the agreement; Republicans opposed the agreement, saying it didn’t go far enough in changing pensions long term. Looney came through with an agreement to bring the matter before the Senate for debate and a vote. In the end, it passed the Senate on July 31, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman casting the tie vote.
“They kept to their word that there would be a vote,” Fasano said of Looney and Democratic House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz. “When we disagree, we just control the schedule and the time within the Senate” and make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard.
The legislature still had make up a remaining $3.5 billion gap.
Calling The Question
As summer dragged on, Looney and Fasano and their staffs kept track of which members on each side would be out on vacation on a particular day, to avoid surprise votes when one side was short-handed. “Sometimes we had to thread the needle pretty narrowly to make sure everyone was there,” Fasano recalled. Doing otherwise to win a vote, Looney said, “would blow up the process. The next day you come back, trust would be eviscerated.”
Democrats crafted their own version of a budget, including more new revenues than Republicans would support. But enough conservative Democrats defected in both the Senate and House to approve a Republican version of the budget instead.
On Sept. 15, Looney was presented with a choice: Table a vote, since his party would lose. And let it proceed.
Fasano recalled telling Looney it was his call: “‘Look if you want to postpone the bill, I won’t debate that motion.”
“We sort of knew the governor was going to veto it anyway,” Looney said. So thwarting a vote would have pleased his party’s liberal base, but it would not have advanced the process.
The governor indeed vetoed the Republican budget. Now Looney and Fasano had to return to work — without the governor — and strike a compromise both parties could swallow. It passed 33-3 in the Senate, 126-23 in the House. (Click here for a story on why one New Haven Democrat voted no)
The final version contained more cuts than Democrats wanted, more new revenues and fewer labor concessions than Republicans wanted.
Time for Looney and Fasano to sell it to their teams.
Some Democrats bristled, for instance, at changing the terms of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) so fewer working families qualify for it. Looney — who for years championed the EITC and shepherded it to creation — argued that the compromise prevented the program from being cut further.
“The difficult part was both of us going back to our casuses and saying, ‘Listen, this is the deal we cut. We need a bipartisan budget. We need it for the strength of the state of Connecticut. We need it for the bonding market. We need it for the businesses. We need to show that in 2018, we can work together to move this state forward,” Fasano recalled. “There were a lot of people, the far right of my party, were very upset that I would think of cutting a deal. ‘This is their budget. Let them figure it out.’ [But] I’m not elected to serve 50 percent of Connecticut. I’m elected to serve 100 percent of Connecticut.”
After months of acrimony, Connecticut had its bipartisan moment.
Looney said it was the most grueling, challenging session in his 37 years at the Capitol, including the 1991 brawl over instituting a state income tax.
“You have to have a sense of humanity about it and realize in the end all of us who are elected, it really is a gift and a great responsibility,” he reflected. “The people trusted you to hold that office. That means you have the repsonsiblity to try to be productive. Taking the extreme partisan role is not productive. That is in many ways self-indulgent. That’s something rank and file members can sometimes do, but leaders cannot do.”
Looney and Fasano did not have much time to revel in that moment. No sooner had the metaphorical ink dried on the new budget, than a new revenue update came in. As usual, less money came in than expected. The budget was already more than $200 million out of whack. A new round of brinksmanship has ensued at the Capitol.
A new regular session starts in February. More painful decisions await.
“I think it was admirable,” Jonathan Wharton said of the Fasano-Looney performance in 2017. “My only concerns would be that considering this year’s budget negotiations, they manage stronger relations with one another and governor’s office. How this relationship will fare out again next year during an election year will be the ultimate test.”
In the joint interview, Looney and Fasano said they intend to continue that relationship not just in dealing with the budget, but in addressing other issues. Like examining how to respond to the merger between Aetna and CVS.
CVS has one of the biggest management of prescription drugs in the country. That raises a huge concern,” Fasano said.
“I agree with Len,” Looney continued.
Together, they have a better shot at doing something about it.
Click on or download the above audio file or click on the Faceook Live video below to listen to the full interview with Martin Looney and Len Fasano on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”