Conn. Bill to Ban Chinese-, Russian-Made Police Drones Grounded

May 13, 2024
The legislation, which would've banned the use of Chinese- and Russian-made drones by police and other government entities, had passed Connecticut's Senate before it was crashed in the House.

HARTFORD, CT — As the hours dwindled on the last day of the General Assembly's short session Wednesday night, a bill to ban Chinese and Russian-made drones crashed and burned. In its death spiral, it took with it a variety of accompanying legislation, including provisions that state businesses opposed, lawmakers said.

The legislation, with the title Senate Bill 3 indicating it was a priority to Democrats, was approved in the Senate on May 3 in a 26-10 vote, with two Republicans joining the 24-member Democratic majority.

But it hit the House floor very late on the last day of the 13-week legislative session, when any slowdown could result in a bill being pulled off the floor in order to open up debate for other pressing pieces of legislation.

After more than two hours of debate, during which Republicans asked first that the bill get referred to the Energy & Technology Committee before offering an amendment to strike sections on consumer price disclosures, digital security measures and penalties under the state's unfair trade practices law, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D- East Hartford, stood and ordered that the bill be "passed temporarily," which on the last night of the legislative session, spelled doom for the proposal.

"Originally, S.B. 3 was a terrible bill in committee and the redrafting didn't make it better," state Rep. David Rutigliano of Trumbull, a ranking Republican on the General Law Committee, recalled on Friday.

The bill was proposed on the house floor by state Rep. Mike D'Agostino, D- Hamden, co-chairman of the committee, who stressed at the start of the debate that the proposal had been radically redrafted since the start of the session in February. "It's really been watered-down," D'Agostino told the House chamber Wednesday night.

The bill, which contained items under the purview of the Department of Consumer Protection, would have created a study of current internet neutrality to provide consistent consumer rates and mandatory fee disclosures, including total prices. "I think we can all get behind the idea that when a consumer is offered a price it should be the full price that they expect to pay," D'Agostino said.

In the middle of the debate, Rutigliano noticed that the eventual study would be forwarded to the legislative Energy Committee and he made a motion to immediately send the bill there because that committee had not yet reviewed it. A roll call vote went against Republicans and the debate continued. After huddles among legislative leaders and committee chairmen, including Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D- Hartford, the debate went ahead, briefly, until Rojas grounded the bill.

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D- Bridgeport, who joined in the debate on the Republican amendment as the co-chairman of the law-writing Judiciary Committee on Friday morning said that the legislation was a priority for Senate Democrats. "The Republicans were clearly filibustering it and we were trying to find a path for the bill because I thought it would do important things," Stafstrom said. "It kind of freaks me out that drones, essentially made by Chinese military contractors, are being used by police in Connecticut."

The sections of the bill on drone sales would've put time limits on the purchase of Chinese- or Russian-made drones by cities and towns, in line with the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection's plans to stop buying them by Oct. 1 of this year. The bill included a $3 million pool of grant money to help towns and cities purchase new compliant drones after the statewide ban would've taken effect on Oct. 1, 2025. Existing drones could be used until October 2027 under the bill, and afterwards municipalities could have still retained them until 2034, after communicating with DESPP.

Police and fire officials from throughout the state had been wary of the bill, because of the lack of drone manufacturers outside of the Russian Federation and China.

"Keep in mind, alright, that our government has already said that the manufacture of these drones — the people that your police departments are buying them from — is an arm of the Chinese military," D'Agostino said. "We're not just talking about the pictures that these drones take. We're talking about these things are plugged into your docking stations, plugged into your (police departments), infrastructure and computer systems," said D'Agostino. Two towns in rural Texas were recently hacked by suspected Russian agents, and proponents worry that even more could be targeted as a result of municipal drones.

Another section of the failed bill would have required dealers in cameras and computers to provide opt-outs for provisions that consumer photos might be shared, something that D'Agostino said is already occurring. Another piece of the bill would be a "right to repair" instructions to consumers who request them. Companies could also be protected from releasing trade secrets, and a final section would've required towns and cities to have "dot.gov" at the end of their website addresses by 2026.

Stafstrom noted that during the last few days of a legislative session, particular when bills that passed in one chamber await action in another, leaders have to make priorities and watch the clock as midnight on the last night inches closer. "I have several Judiciary Committee bills that died (Wednesday) including the legislation on State Police data collection and street takeovers that did not get through the Senate," Stafstrom said. "Any time at the end of a legislative session, it gets frantic."

Rutigliano said Friday that opposition to the bill remained from big corporations, including ESPN and Apple. "The sections on junk fees was not clear." he said of the language in the bill. "If it was well-drafted we could have done it weeks ago. They knew they had problems with the bill. We'll revisit it again next year, but it was turned into a monster."

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(c)2024 Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.

Visit Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn. at www.journalinquirer.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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