Home » Candidates grapple with state deficit, other key issues

Candidates grapple with state deficit, other key issues

FALLS VILLAGE — Incumbent state Rep. Roberta Willis (D-64) and Republican challenger Kathy Lauretano presented voters with decidedly different visions of how state government should function during a debate Friday, Oct. 15.

The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Litchfield County and The Lakeville Journal, was held at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in front of about 80 people and was moderated by Jean Rabinow, an attorney from Trumbull and League volunteer. Questions were asked by reporter George Krimsky from the Waterbury Republican-American newspaper and Lakeville Journal Executive Editor Cynthia Hochswender, as well as by two students from Housatonic. Questions were also submitted by audience members.

State’s budget deficit

Ben Finkelstein, a Housatonic senior, started things off , asking what the candidates proposed to do about Connecticut’s $3 billion-plus budget deficit.

Lauretano said state spending should be cut back to the 2007 level, for starters, and that the number of state employees should be reduced by attrition.

On the matter of pensions for state workers, she said, “It is criminal that the Legislature failed to fund them properly for so many years,” adding that the state is borrowing money to cover the shortfall.

Willis replied that “Connecticut did not bring this on ourselves” and said that 47 states face similar difficulties. “This crisis was delivered to our door” as state revenues dropped sharply in the wake of the financial meltdown in late 2008, as wealthy towns such as Greenwich, which rely heavily on taxes paid by citizens working in financial services, saw their revenues drop precipitously.

Willis said the losses from the wealthiest towns amount to half the state’s deficit, and said while she would cut spending and reexamine state employee wages and benefits, “the most important thing is to create jobs.”

Northwest Corner towns

Finkelstein had a question from fellow student Monica Chin (a sophomore, who could not attend), asking about development in the Northwest Corner.

Willis cited her experience in 2005 with a bill that established business enterprise zones in Torrington, saying the bill saved 400 jobs and created 250 new ones, and brought 14 new companies into the city. The legislation “exceeded my expectations.”

Lauretano said the enterprise zone approach hasn’t been applied statewide and said cities and towns need better coordination. “It’s essential to find ways to help each other to prosper,” such as encouraging visitors to Torrington to explore the small towns of the district.

Both candidates said they oppose a bill pending in the Legislature establishing a statewide property tax. “Any kind of tax increase is inexcusable in this economy, in this state,” said Lauretano. “The state has 347 taxes and fees. We have plenty of revenue.”

Willis said she opposes the idea, as she opposed a uniform car tax proposal in the past.

Unfunded mandates

Questioner George Krimsky asked about allowing municipalities for taxing authority, such as sales taxes, to reduce the property tax burden and reduce reliance on state aid.

Willis said she was “reluctant” to embrace the concept. “I’m not there yet. What would we be taxing? “

Lauretano flatly opposed the notion, and said the problem could be solved by eliminating unfunded state mandates. “When the Legislature has a brilliant idea but lacks the gumption to raise taxes to pay for it,” the result is unfunded mandates that the towns have to pay for — and higher property taxes.  

“If the idea is so brilliant and so essential to our survival then they can raise the revenue themselves and face the taxpayers,” she said.

High-speed Internet

On the question of getting remote areas connected to broadband Internet service, Lauretano, citing her own experience, said she believes that if utilities are granted monopolies they should be required to offer the service to everyone, either via “market pressures” or legislation.

Willis said, “I wish it were that simple. The problem is, again, that the industry is deregulated, and companies cherry-pick the most profitable areas and ignore the rest.”

“It should have been done like electricity,” she continued.

Capital punishment

On the death penalty, the candidates differed sharply. Willis favors abolition of capital punishment. “Capital punishment speaks to who we are as a society. We should not disguise vengeance as justice.” She said she supports sentences of life without parole for murder.

“I support the death penalty,” said Lauretano. “Society has the responsibility to punish, and to protect.”

She said that DNA analysis not only makes it possible to revisit cases— and sometimes find evidence to overturn convictions — but the technology makes prosecutions better. She urged streamlining the appeals process and said that convicts on death row are “the most dangerous prisoners” and present a danger to corrections officers.

“They have nothing to lose. There’s nothing else the state can do to them.”  

Whom do you admire?

Krimsky asked the candidates to name the national political figures they most admire. Lauretano asked back, “Dead or alive? I’d like to flush Washington, D.C., entirely, I don’t care what side of the aisle.”

She went on to mention high-profile conservative Republicans Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Minnesota Congressman Michele Bachmann and Ronald Reagan. Her selections drew scattered applause from one part of the audience, and gasps and muttering from another, and prompted moderator Rabinow to warn the audience that any applause took time away from the candidate. (Candidate answers were limited to two minutes.)

Willis said, “I better hold up my side,” and said she admires Barack Obama. “It’s nice to have a really bright young team in the White House.” She also praised Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of state.

Ballot initiatives

An audience question solicited the candidates’ position on whether Connecticut should adopt a ballot initiative or referendum system. Willis said she was against the idea, saying it hasn’t worked well in California and Colorado, with a cap on taxes in one bill and an expansion in services in another. “It makes no sense.”

Lauretano supported the idea and said the effectiveness of any bill “would depend on how it was written.”

Supporting farmers

On state policy toward farms and farmers, Lauretano said she opposed “subsidies for farmers or any other businesses, for that matter. There are other ways to support farming.

“Right now we can’t afford to put out any money for this. We have to stop subsidizing everything under the sun.”

“We have to support farmers,” countered Willis. “It’s a $1-billion industry in Connecticut.”

She said that without bipartisan action taken with state Sen.Andrew Roraback (R-30) and Republican Rep. Craig Miner (R-66), dairy farms in East Canaan “wouldn’t be here today.”

Farming “is part of our heritage, out cultural landscape. We cannot afford not to invest in it. It’s who we are.”

Krimsky asked Lauretano, a former state trooper, if she included her own pension in her discussion of cutting state spending.

“My pension came from my base pay. I didn’t pad it,” said Lauretano, adding that she comes from a “right-to-work background.”

She said she believes abuse of the pension process to be widespread. “It’s outrageous and needs to be ended. Citizens don’t make that kind of money. It’s outrageous they have to be stuck paying for it.”

Supermajority a problem?

Krimsky then asked Willis if the urban, Democratic supermajority in the Legislature gave short shrift to the Northwest Corner’s small towns.

“I’m not sure I agree with the premise,” replied Willis. She said that the strength of urban legislators has been diminished in recent years, with members now representing suburban areas with different priorities. “Any supermajority is like herding cats.We don’t have everybody on the same page.”

Electricity costs

The candidates on electric rates:  Willis cited deregulation and said that electricity is not priced according to the cost of production. She also said that Connecticut, which imports electricity, relies on generators which in turn rely heavily on natural gas and oil. “We need to look at pricing, based on the cost of production.”

Lauretano said the electric transmission system on the shore is inadequate and said the state should look hard at nuclear power. “I know that gives a lot of people the heebie-jeebies,”she said, adding that the technology of nuclear power has improved.

Health insurance

Of a reported 47-percent increase in some health insurance premiums by Anthem, Lauretano said Connecticut should stand on the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and refuse to cooperate with the new federal health-care law  (“Obamacare”).

Willis said insurance companies are using federal law as the justification for increasing rates and that the state SustiNet program, coordinated with the federal law, will help bring costs down.

Benefits for state workers

On pensions and health care for state retirees, and a 20-year agreement between then-Gov. John Rowland and state employee unions signed in 1997:

Willis said the Rowland deal was an “unheard-of contract” that won’t run out until six years from now. “That’s a question for the third forum from now.”

She added the Legislature should be more involved in the process, and that state workers recently made $700 million in concessions.

Lauretano said, “The Legislature loves to blame the governor but they do have to approve the contracts.” She favors a right-to-work law to reduce the bargaining power of unions.

Willis’ closing words

Willis went first in the closing statements, beginning with “We need to get people back to work.”

She said the budget crisis  “is an opportunity for reform” and said there are no easy fixes.

“We can’t cut our way out, or raise taxes.

“People are tired of the blame game. It’s easy to fire the missiles — somebody has to fly the plane.”

Lauretano’s closing words

Lauretano said the state had an enormous budget deficit “and no idea how to cover it.”  Even as the state is borrowing to meet its obligations, she added, the state’s bond rating has dropped, making  the borrowing more expensive.

“We cannot allow the state to become insolvent. We need new people in the Legislature to do the hard work that hasn’t been done.

“If you like where Connecticut is today, vote for Rep. Willis.”

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