Bryan Haeffele photos
The Middlebrook School auditorium was packed the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 16, for a debate between six candidates running for election and re-election this November.
During the hour-and-a-half-long debate sponsored by the Wilton League of Women Voters, candidates for Connecticut’s 26th Senate district, 143rd House district, and 125th House district were presented six questions, including those about taxes, tolls, voting, guns, and education funding.
The candidates were asked about their thoughts on phasing out the state income tax and/or personal property tax and how they would balance the budget.
Democratic 125th House district candidate Ross Tartell and incumbent Republican Tom O’Dea agreed there are other taxes, like the gift tax, that can be eliminated before looking at the income tax.
O’Dea said he proposes a 20% cut “across the board in every department, except for the judiciary and the Department of Developmental Services,” which, he said, would give the state $2 billion.
“With that money,” O’Dea said, he would use $650 million to cut the Social Security income tax, eliminate the tax on pensions, and eliminate the gift tax.
Tartell said the state income tax “needs to be maintained,” arguing that a “tremendous cut” cannot be made to it because of its size. Instead, Tartell suggested making “specific changes in terms of pension reform.”
Democratic 143rd House district candidate Stephanie Thomas said she “actually [doesn’t] think taxes are the issue” because “almost everyone” she’s talked to in the 143rd district has said “they would not mind paying taxes if they went to where they are supposed to go.”
Thomas said the state of Connecticut’s budget is “a management issue” and “given the budgetary shortfalls, we won’t be able to [cut income tax].”
“I know that a lot of things haven’t worked, [but] I am in favor of just really a line-by-line audit, comprehensive tax policies, looking at what incentives are out there … what tax credits are out there and really think about where we can solve this problem,” said Thomas.
Republican 143rd House district candidate and incumbent Gail Lavielle agreed with her opponent that the state hasn’t been well-managed and said phasing out the income and/or personal property tax isn’t something that can be done overnight.
“When you are managing and editing this large amount, you have to look at reducing taxes while looking at reducing spending while you are trying to engineer some economic growth — and you have to do it all at once, at the same time … It takes time,” said Lavielle.
“My preference is to start with taxes that put the most pressure on retirees, because they are the ones who feel so much pressure, especially when they’re on fixed income … and then, over time — if things are being managed well — we can look at reducing the income tax over time as tax base growth and spending reductions permit, and we would try to get to a level where Connecticut is more attractive from that point of view.”
While all six candidates said they are in favor of a special transportation fund known as the “lockbox,” they had different opinions about tolls being used as a way to improve Connecticut’s infrastructure.
O’Dea said he would “entertain” a “one-lane public-private partnership on I-95 in each direction.”
“You have a private company come in and put in a lane going north and one lane going south, and you toll that,” he said. “If they build that, they control what it costs to go on it, they make their money back — I’m in favor of that.”
Tartell said he “believe[s] in the lockbox” and “believe[s] in tolls” — the latter of which, he said, would give Connecticut “the money and income stream”to take care of [its] transportation.”
“It gives you an operation stream of income that is guaranteed and focused,” he said, “and comes from people outside the state.”
Lavielle said she has been a proponent of lockbox “for years,” but tolls “can’t be a short-term way of raising revenues.”
“For the near future, we’ve got revenue from a lot of sources [but] in the out years, we probably will see a big decline in gas tax revenues [and] at that point, we will need a new revenue source,” she said.
“The smart thing for us to do now is scenario planning — to develop a series of objectives or market-driven gas tax revenue declines, estimating how much money we will need each year, and then matching potential revenue sources — tolls, optional tolls, public-private partnerships — to see what the needs will be and evaluating them as a solution. Then, in the event that they were to include tolls, it would only be in the context of the natural disappearance of the gas tax.”
Thomas said she is “very much in favor of the lockbox, but understands that “there’s no provision in the constitutional amendment that would indicate what income is then put into that lockbox,” which means “Hartford could still control whether the gas tax money goes there or other income streams.”
“I think that’s all fine for right now,” she said, but as Lavielle alluded to, “a lot of the places we are getting revenue are going to cease to exist.”
Thomas said she believes in tolls and collecting money from out-of-state trucks and cars through them.
All four candidates agreed that allowing no-excuses absentee ballots would be a good thing. Tartell also is in favor of early voting as is Thomas. Lavielle also said she is in favor of no-excuses absentee voting.
O’Dea said he agreed with Tartell’s response and then used the rest of his time to further discuss transportation. That is when he criticized the state spending $700 million on a busway from New Britain to Hartford. He is interested in pursuing a high-speed rail tunnel from New Haven to Manhattan, claiming it would take 12 minutes to get to Manhattan from Stamford.
When asked if Connecticut’s gun laws should be made more or less restrictive, the candidates agreed the state has some of the strongest gun laws in the country.
Lavielle said there are things the legislature has to pass next year like the ghost gun bill.
“We have to do all these things — at the same time, we’ve got to do other things, too, and we’ve got to keep working on a culture of violence that we have in this country … and that’s a group effort,” she said. “It’s something we will all have to do together and realize it’s happening and acknowledge it.”
Thomas said she agrees with Lavielle, but strong gun laws aren’t the only solution because “there are still many loopholes.”
“What bothers me is that there hasn’t been enough money allocated from the federal government to study this as a public health issue,” said Thomas, adding that people she’s spoken to — ”young, old, Republican, Democrat” — have expressed a concern about gun violence.
Thomas said she’s in favor of enacting stronger gun legislation, as well as “local mandated reporting for gun dealers to local law enforcement” and biometric storage.
However, Thomas said, “even if we have the strongest gun laws in the world, that would not solve our gun violence problem.”
“We have to think holistically about [things like] hate and intolerance,” she said.
Tartell said guns are “a threat to the way we live our lives,” and that there are “critical pieces of our society that we need to attend to” like insurance and taxes on guns.
O’Dea said he agreed with Lavielle and is also in favor of having dogs in schools sniffing for drugs as well as guns and explosives.
The candidates were asked whether they would support changing the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula used by the state to distribute funds to municipalities for education.
Thomas said she would change the formula. “A lot of changes were already made [that make] the ECS formula a lot more fair, but one of the biggest challenges right now, I think, has to do with how poverty is being weighted and measured,” she said.
“A lot of people are now being left out of the equation [and] it is still very difficult or it costs more to educate them. I would want to look at how we can close that gap and figure out a new standard.”
Special education is another aspect of the formula that needs to be fixed, she said. “The number of students being put in [special education] keeps growing. Right now, the formula is taking that into account, but as that population grows, we won’t be able to keep pace, so we’ll have to fix that as well.”
Lavielle said ECS is something she’s spent “a lot of time on,” and there are “a lot of inequities” in the formula.
“There is clearly a mismatch in many cases between the measure for household income in a town and the property values,” she said. “We’ve got to look at the formula and adjust it for these factors,” said Lavielle, adding that the ECS formula “has not been fully funded in years, so the amount of money that’s supposed to go to it isn’t there, and a lot of districts are underfunded as a result.”
“We need to put more money into education, which I hope we can do,” she said. “As we improve the economy, that should be a priority.”
Tartell said the “best and most effective way” to close Connecticut’s income gap is “through education.”
“We need to be able to fund special education on a much more regional basis because school districts in and of themselves can no longer bear the burden,” he said.
“It’s important to create a personal, close, specialized, flexible approach to creating a learning environment for each child,” he said, but funding and resources need to be allocated and spread across regions in order to make that work.
“It’s also a leadership issue [and] how things get funded,” said Tartell. “I’m not a fan of [Gov. Dannel] Malloy — he’s really messed up the leadership of this state, and I’m very happy that he is not running again.”
O’Dea said the problem is “not necessarily” the ECS formula, but rather “a bloated administration.”
“Under state law, you can’t reduce funding to your board of education unless you’re one of the top 10% of school districts,” he said.
“What’s happened over time is we’ve had a bloated bureaucracy that’s gotten away from educating our children. We need to address that across the board and allow districts more flexibility to trim the fat.”