Shortly after he took his oath of office to represent Newtown in Connecticut's 106th District, Mitch Bolinsky came to The Bee with a stack of proposals, and to talk about what he hoped to accomplish in his freshman term. He returned to the newspaper a few days after the close of that historic session armed with a different set of documents.
As he headed into his first few weeks at the capitol, Rep Bolinsky said he had “come out of the box with 16 or 17 bills.”
“Most were based on constituent requests or issues that were Newtown centric,” he said. “Nine wound up tabled, which is pretty typical.”
But Rep Bolinsky also saw about 35 percent of his proposals move forward, albeit as borrowed elements of larger mental health and privacy legislation. In that respect, Rep Bolinsky admitted, “As a newcomer, that may be unprecedented.”
In another conversation a few days ahead of his first session, Rep Bolinsky talked about how the tragedy of 12/14 propelled him, literally, into the arms of virtually every lawmaker in Hartford – inadvertently giving him the kind of name and face recognition few if any “first-termers” receive.
He was also in a position to be introduced around by Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who is mulling a run for governor, and 112th District veteran Republican lawmaker DebraLee Hovey.
He also benefited from the support of second-term Republican Dan Carter, who represents a small area of Newtown in 116th District, thanks to the last redistricting initiative.
“I was in a unique position to have two experienced assembly reps leading me around,
Rep Bolinsky said, “DebraLee and Dan helped give me more insight than maybe a lot of other freshmen have. Plus I have a seven-year relationship with John through my local government service.”
Rep Bolinsky previously served on Newtown's Legislative Council, the Economic Development Commission, and as a local Justice of the Peace.
“These relationships helped me get my bills launched,” he said. “But you also try and support other bills that have overlap to what you're trying to accomplish.
“Don't forget, as a freshman, Newtown connection or not, I'm also limited as to the amount of water I'm allowed to carry up there,” he added. “In Hartford, everything is politics.”
Town Clerk's Bill
Rep Bolinsky pointed to a bill he proposed as a result of Newtown Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia's refusal to release death certificates from the 12/14 victims to the press and public, as an example of how political horse trading worked in the final days of the session.
“We negotiated the death certificate bill away in consideration of locking up protections against crime scene photos and sensitive audio files for all state crime victims,” Rep Bolinsky said.
From early-on the goal was clear in trying to convert existing public death records to a less detailed palm card, similar to what is currently being used for birth record requests.
“The scope was pretty narrow, protect the families and town from any more unwelcome exposure,” he said. “In the end, we saw a lot of hard work from John, DebraLee and Dan. [House GOP Leader] Larry Cafero was squarely in our corner, and the Governor agreed with what we were doing and supported it the whole way through.
“Ultimately we can talk about revisiting the death certificate short form next session, if we have the support of town clerks,” he said. “And we can take a fresh look at it without the immediate crisis of (12/14) hanging over us.”
And while achieving the privacy protections in the new law, Rep Bolinsky was not happy about how much of that language was crafted outside the public eye.
“People were focused on the death certificate issue while this new legislation was being developed,” he said. “But a public process is a public process – every issue should have a public hearing. The less we do behind closed doors, the better.”
Behind Closed Doors
While describing his first term in Hartford as “a learning process,” Rep Bolinsky said that in his assessment, Connecticut this year has borne the brunt of more closed door legislating than in his memory. In particular the privacy bill.
“Our governor was legislating from behind closed doors, and a lot of that privacy legislation that came out of those closed sessions was already agreed upon by a bipartisan majority,” Rep Bolinsky said. “I don't understand the need to legislate by executive order when you have support for something in both the House and Senate.
“There was no emergency, we basically had an agreement already,” he added.
In terms of his own ideas, Rep Bolinsky said getting the death certificate proposal to the house calendar was a huge success for a first-termer. And another proposal regarding a sick leave bank for municipal responders became part of the more comprehensive Sandy Hook Workers Emergency Fund Act.
He also discussed going back in and fixing some of the legislation he supported, including one of the toughest gun control bills in the country. Rep Bolinsky noted that a provision in that bill about how many firearm magazines could be carried or transported by a single citizen was becoming problematic for retired police officers who either wanted to continue training on their firearms, or who were engaged in becoming re-certified for a law enforcement job.
Process “Is Broken”
Talking about the newly passed state budget, one of the more contentious in recent years, Rep Bolinsky said he had the support of many constituents who urged him to vote against it.
“A lot of constituents were appalled that this budget was borrowing so much to pay operating expenses,” he said.
In more typical years, he said the minority party in Hartford publishes its own alternate budget proposal.
“I would have liked to see that happen. But there were so many divergent priorities this session,” he observed. “In the future, I'd like to see [the Republicans] at the table. I'm on the Appropriations Committee and I wasn't included in a single budget meeting since the public hearings in April.
“The Connecticut process, much like we see in Washington, is broken.”
He said Republicans in Connecticut represent more than a million registered voters, and even as a minority party member, I would have liked to be in on a few of those budget meetings.”
“This may be why politicians are losing so much public respect,” he ventured. “Ironically, we all want the same thing. We just can't seem to come together on ways to get there.”
Looking ahead to February 2014, the start of his second year in the legislature, Rep Bolinsky said he is already making notes every day as ideas for new or “fixing” existing legislation come to him.
“Now I know how the process works,” he said. “This session I saw a lot of good bills that didn't make it to the floor because we were looking at Sandy Hook related business. A lot of those have to be picked up next session.”
In the meantime, Rep Bolinsky pledges to be available to constituents, and will continue to form ideas based on local concerns and input.