The state senate candidates disagreed about taxes and tolls, but saw eye to eye on sticking up to unions to resolve unfunded pensions at a debate in New Canaan Town Hall. The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and New Canaan Advertiser and took place on Monday, Oct. 22.

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The state senate candidates for two districts that represent New Canaan included incumbent Republican Sen. Toni Boucher and her challenger Democrat Will Haskell, Republican incumbent Scott Frantz and his challenger Alex Bergstein. It was moderated by Kate Hurlock of the League of Women Voters.

One of the first questions Hurlock asked was about taxes — estate, corporate, property and income taxes. Three of the four candidates agreed on eliminating or reducing the estate tax. Haskell said the estate and gift tax should be reduced or discontinued because they “cost more to collect than they bring in.”

Income tax

The candidates did not stick with party line on reducing or eliminating the income tax, which was instituted in 1991. The Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski promotes eliminating it in eight years, and his opponent, Democrat Ned Lamont, opposes that idea.

Boucher agrees with Stefanowski. “Abolishing income taxes, by the way, is something we all should be striving for. Other states don’t have it.” She argued that the state is losing people to states that do not have income taxes.

She added, “we have to take a long hard look at their sources of revenue and how they run their states and how Connecticut ran the state before 1991.”

Frantz did not respond directly to the question on taxes but lashed out at the “majority party,” the Democrats, and blamed the fiscal crisis on them. During the entire debate, he did not clarify his position on income taxes.

His opponent, Bergstein, said the state should look at rolling the income tax back “incrementally and responsibly.”

Haskell said, “Eliminating the income tax is simply not an honest proposal in my point of view.” He questioned the premise that companies were leaving the state because of tax rates. He said, Aetna is moving to New York, which has a higher tax rate.

Haskell, who graduated from college in May, said “What these companies will tell you is Connecticut can’t provide a young diverse tech-savvy workforce.”

No love for unions

Candidates agreed that deals made with organized labor have contributed to the state’s fiscal crisis. Frantz is not optimistic on negotiating with unions.

He said Bergstein “does not understand the unions. If you spend time up there you would understand how ruthless these unions are. They will say ‘no’ to everything.”

He said that unions will not negotiate on pension or benefits. “It is not within their DNA. Their leadership is paid a lot of money to be pitbulls and put up every resistance known to mankind.”   

Bergstein said, “I am not afraid of unions.” And, “unions have to come to the table. They have no choice. There isn’t the money to fund what has been promised to them. They are standing on a precipice, the political tide entirely against them.”

Boucher said, “we need to revisit all of that — wages, health care and pension and reduce and restructure them so they are affordable.”

Haskell said, “I am not endorsed by most of the unions, because I think it is time to elect fiscally responsible people to Harford.”

Pension

The candidates agreed that unfunded pensions for state employees is a storm on the horizon.

Haskell said the dark cloud hanging over Connecticut’s fiscal situation is our unfunded pension liabilities. The state has $36 billion of unfunded liabilities with state workers, and $100 billion including teachers, he said.

Frantz said, “We are creating one of the worst business climates in the entire country, and I am not exaggerating.”

Bergstein said unfunded pensions are the state’s “biggest problem,” but she proposes a solution called the ‘Shared Risk Model.’ She said, she explained her concept in an article published by Bloomberg.

Frantz said her pension plan suggestion “is one of the more naive pieces I have seen.”  

Tolls

The views on tolls in the state fell along party lines with Republicans speaking against them and Democrats speaking in favor.

Frantz said Bergstein supports tolls, and “that kills us. That is a regressive tax.” He said, “the people who are driving here to teach in the schools in New Canaan from Branford or wherever” would have to pay tolls and they “can’t afford that. It wouldn’t be fair. We have a much better system in mind using existing bonding capacity.”

He also said the state needs better priorities on where to spend transportation funds.

Bergstein said, “Issuing more bonds is not a solution. Every legitimate business organization out there — the Bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, and the Business Council of Fairfield County — they have all said we need new sources of revenue, we need to install tolls.”

Franz said, his opponent should do “her homework,” and he wants to use existing bonding capacity, not increased bonding, for additional revenue.

Haskell said, This conversation never ceases to amaze me” because Connecticut is the only state “between Maine and North Carolina that doesn’t ask out-of-state drivers or trucking companies to the contribute to the upkeep of our infrastructure.”

He recommend that the state “look at high-tech solutions like lower fares for local riders and commuters.”

Boucher is against tolls. Instead she wants to tap into bonding for transportation infrastructure improvements. She cited a plan called, Prioritize Progress, which uses bonding, “which is the appropriate use of funds when we have such long-term infrastructure” needs.

Caption for picture above:  Both State Sen. Scott Frantz [R-36], on left, and challenger Alex Bergstein are concerned about unfunded pensions according to their arguments at a New Canaan League of Women Voters debate. The name tags are misleading. — Greg Reilly photo