The Modernization of the Connecticut State Legislature
The Connecticut state legislature has undergone many significant changes throughout its remarkable history. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the General Assembly underwent a period of intense modernization, transforming itself into an assertive legislature that now operates as a free, independent and co-equal branch of government.
The modernization of the General Assembly had no single catalyst, but largely took place in the midst of a contentious period of reapportionment lasting from approximately 1965 until 1973. Prior to reapportionment, the Connecticut state legislature was caught between its agrarian past with an irregularly strong representation for the State's rural populations, and a national trend towards active and progressive government.
In 1964, “ninety-six towns with an aggregate population of 303,086 (12 percent of the people) elected a majority of the House (148 of the 294) representatives. It was the most malapportioned lower house in the country.” That sort of malapportionment could not prevail when contrasted with the sweeping progressive movements of the time such as the civil rights and feminist movements, John F. Kennedy’s call for public service, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
A. Origin of Reapportionment Process
The reapportionment process had many competing concerns, and was a necessary step to create an independent and modern legislature. The process was started when the United States Supreme Court decided in Baker v. Carr that federal courts could intervene with the reapportionment of State legislatures. Instituting the one-person, one-vote standard, Baker required that legislatures be apportioned into districts of “substantially” equal populations.
Baker was applied by the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims to throw out a redistricting plan that violated the one-man, one-vote principle. The emerging case law was applied specifically to Connecticut in Butterfield v. Dempsey, where the federal district court threw out a redistricting plan that violated the requirement of having districts with substantially equal populations.
Facing a certain threat of federal intervention in the make-up of the General Assembly, Connecticut politicians held a constitutional convention in 1965 to overhaul the make-up and apportionment of the legislature. Among other changes, the convention capped the number of members of the House of Representatives at between 125 and 225, and also implemented the town integrity principle, which stated that no town could be divided between House districts, except for forming a whole district within the town.
The town integrity principle remains a significant constraint on the General Assembly’s ability to redistrict, and can only be violated where necessary to meet the federal equal population requirement.
B. Reduction of House Members
Reapportionment’s affects, however, were not solely concerned with the improvement of election and representation levels; the Connecticut state legislature was also overpopulated prior to reapportionment. By 1964, the principle of allowing each town to have at least one representative had swollen the number of House members to 294, making it second only to New Hampshire for the largest state legislature. With low pay, high turnover and no staff, many of the legislators were loyal members of their political parties and were often easily influenced by powerful party bosses such as John Bailey for the Democrats and J. Henry Roraback for the Republicans.
Connecticut’s political parties had tremendous influence over government patronage and the platforms forced on their respective politicians during the 20th century until at least 1970. In 1970, the legislature asserted itself with the Legislative Management Act, thereby stripping the party Chair of much of his control over patronage. Also, the first statewide primary occurred in 1970, thereby stripping important decisions out of the hands of a party boss and into the ballot box.
C. Current Status of Representation
While the legislature's reapportionment brought about much-needed change in the way citizens were represented, the system has now developed into one of little competition. While reapportionment equalized the strength of each citizen’s voice in Connecticut, it didn’t necessarily inspire many more people to step forward and offer leadership.
By some estimates there were as few as six truly competitive races for the House of Representatives (only 4%) in the 2006 elections, and only five truly contested Senate seats (14 percent). The legislature has implemented recent public policy changes seeking to reinvigorate the electoral process for legislative races; this year’s elections are the first being held under a new citizen’s election program, where many candidates have opted to use public financing. Time will tell if meaningful reform is born of this development, either from parity in election funds, the prohibition of lobbyist influence through money, or other means.
II. Reform through Legislation
Two of the more expansive reforms were the Legislative Management Act of 1969 and the creation of a Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee in 1972. Each of these reforms were passed by the legislature as an assertion of legislative power and reflected a collective intent to stand apart as a co-equal branch of government. Not surprisingly, both were vetoed by the Governors at the time, and easily overridden by a determined and independent legislature.
A. Legislative Management Act of 1969
Governor Dempsey’s veto of the Legislative Management Act of 1969 was unanimously overturned by both chambers in an unprecedented display of legislative unity. The legislators also showed a remarkable amount of faith in each other, as the bill did not have any limits on size or cost of the new committee they were creating. "Connecticut's state legislature" was coming of age.
The political affects of the legislature’s overturning the Legislative Management Act’s veto cannot be overstated. Lead by Speaker Bill Ratchford in the House, and Senate President Pro Tem Ed Marcus, the Democrats defied a Governor of their own party, as well as the powerful party chairman John Bailey. In doing so, legislative Democrats made it clear that they would not be conferring with party leadership about any patronage jobs that resulted from the new staff positions created by the Legislative Management Act – a break from past practices.
As one of eight vetoes overturned at the end of the 1969 session, the legislature’s self-proclaimed “declaration of independence” was an act of revolt against both party leadership and a strong executive. In a show of branch-wide unity, by making the vote to overturn the Governor’s veto unanimous, Republican legislators also sacrificed certain opportunities unique to the minority party with its ability to criticize majority choices made in governing.