‘One-size-fits-all’ approach not effective at state level, House candidate says

WESTPORT — Candidates seeking to represent Westport in the state House of Representatives faced off in a forum Tuesday afternoon.

The debate included incumbent Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Chip Stephens for the 136th House District, which only covers Westport. It also included Democrat Stephanie Thomas and Republican Patrizia Zucaro, who are both running for the 143rd House District, which includes Westport, Wilton and Norwalk. That seat had been filled by five-term incumbent Gail Lavielle, of Wilton, who is not seeking reelection.

The biggest differences between the candidates came in the responses about tolls, with the Democrats saying they supported a type of toll as a way to increase revenue to cover needed infrastructure work and the Republicans arguing the state needed to cut its spending in other areas and to not use transportation money for other budget items.

Thomas said this includes a toll on trucks or cars coming from out of state and treating it like a user fee to use the roads. Steinberg said there could also be rebates for low-income drivers and Connecticut residents who are frequently commuting on the state’s highways.

“We can’t reduce tolls to a black and white issue,” Steinberg said.

Stephens and Zucaro said the state already has a high gas tax, which was meant to cover infrasturcture improvements. Zucaro also said the state transportation employees’ salaries should be taken out of the transportation budget and but in the general budget to better reflect actual infrastructure spending.

The four candidates generally agreed there needed to be more state oversight on utilities following the response to Tropical Storm Isaias, which left thousands without power for days in August.

However, Stephens proposed defunding the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, funding the police and creating a new agency to oversee the utilities in the state.

“PURA is inefficient and doesn’t get things done,” he said.

Steinberg, who sits on the energy and technology committee, said the recently passed bill was a good starting point to better oversee the utilities and to use recommendations from PURA to create stricter regulations.

He and Thomas also disagreed with Stephens, saying they were defunding the police because they said the police accountability bill gives law enforcement more money and help on social issues.

All four candidates also agreed that the state’s COVID response has been generally good, though the Republicans said there needed to be more transparency from the governor.

They said they would like to see some of the things implemented during the pandemic continue. For Steinberg, this included telemedicine and Zucaro highlighted streamlining different business actions to make it easier for small businesses.

“I don’t know any business owner that hasn’t lost a few nights’ sleep or shed a few tears as we grapple with this new normal,” Thomas said, adding the state should also enact a blanket forgiveness for businesses of a certain size that received paycheck protection program loans.

They all said the state needed to be better about spending to help cut the deficit, which was exacerbated by the coronavirus. These cuts should be coupled with attracting and retaining businesses that will in turn build the tax base.

Some of the deficit issues are tied to pensions set decades ago. The Democrats said the state has gotten better about pensions with newer employees, while the Republicans said the state still needed to be better on contract negotiations with unions, limiting the raises and not having contracts that last 10 years.

Steinberg said improving the state’s infrastructure needs would put people to work, as well as attract more companies to the state. He also suggested focusing on green jobs and vocational careers for students to pursue.

Zucaro also said the state operates on a two-year cycle, while businesses operate on five to 10 year ones and so there needs to be better communication so businesses can better plan and prepare for the coming years and how they can expand.

Thomas suggested encouraging Manhattan companies to set up satellite offices in Connecticut now that so many of their employees haven’t been going into the city due to the coronavirus and working remotely from their homes in Connecticut.

All four also agreed the state shouldn’t have a say in local zoning laws or where affordable housing should go within communities.

“One size fits all at the state level to correct something in eastern Connecticut isn’t going to help us in Fairfield County,” Zucaro said.

The Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce and the library will host the next debate at noon on Oct. 13. It will include the state Senate candidates that represent Westport.