State spending, job creation, early prisoner release, transportation, senior citizens, and education were the main topics addressed by Gail Lavielle and Ted Hoffstatter at a debate Wednesday, Oct. 24, in Norwalk, sponsored by the Wilton and Norwalk Leagues of Women Voters.
Both candidates are vying for the position of state representative of the 143rd District, currently held by Ms. Lavielle, a Republican. Mr. Hoffstatter is running as a Democrat. The district includes portions of Wilton, Norwalk and — due to redistricting — a small portion of Westport.
The candidates touched on a number of education topics, including the Education Reform Act passed in the last session.
Ms. Lavielle said on the issue of teacher evaluations, the act provides for pilot programs in a number of municipalities including Norwalk, which include criteria for student performance, peer evaluation and administrative evaluation.
“We are waiting to see if it is workable,” she said.
The act also “firms up” early literacy, she said, with the goal of having children reading by third grade.
“What it doesn’t eliminate is the possibility of social promotion” if a child is not reading at a specified level. “I would work to change that,” she said.
Another drawback, she said, is the act does not give mandate relief to high-performing schools such as Wilton.
Mr. Hoffstatter, a teacher, said the act is a “positive step forward.”
He agreed unfunded mandates need to be reviewed.
As a teacher, he said, “I see teacher evaluation as so important,” adding the input of parents and students should also be sought. “Their feedback is important.
Moving forward, he said, “it’s now about oversight.”
Both candidates agreed mass transit in this area needs a real shot in the arm. Ms. Lavielle called it “antediluvian” while Mr. Hoffstatter called it “medieval.”
“The branch lines and Metro-North are extremely important to getting cars off the roads,” Mr. Hoffstatter said, adding there is definitely room for improvement.
Ms. Lavielle, who pointed out her role in “putting pressure on the DOT” to open the Wilton train station, said “there are so many fundamentals” involved including population density and an infrastructure in need of upgrading.
Both also found common ground in opposing a measure that passed the last session that allows for the early release of certain prisoners, including those jailed for violent offenses.
Ms. Lavielle said she convinced the judiciary committee to raise a bill that prevented “any criminal who caused death” to earn risk reduction credits that lead to early release. She said the bill had bipartisan support but failed by three votes. She said she will raise it again.
With emotion in his voice, Mr. Hoffstatter related how he was asked, while campaigning, his views on juvenile crime. The questioner was a man whose son had been murdered, he said.
If elected, he continued, he said he would work with the majority party to reverse aspects of this legislation.
With Connecticut ranking, by many studies, among the worst states in which to retire, both candidates were asked how they would help senior citizens remain here.
Ms. Lavielle, who has supported Wilton Commons housing for seniors, said she would like to repeal taxes on Social Security and pension payments, as well as the inheritance tax.
Mr. Hoffstatter, a member of the Wilton Board of Selectmen, said he also supported Wilton Commons and “fought for needs-based tax breaks.”
“Our communities should be young, middle and old, not old, middle and leave,” he said.
He also said, if he had been in Hartford, he would have voted for a bill that would have allowed senior citizens to form grievance committees in nursing homes. Ms. Lavielle voted against that bill, he said, adding the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis rated the bill as having no affect on costs.
Spending and taxes
The area of greatest disagreement, not surprisingly, was the state’s fiscal health. While Mr. Hoffstatter saw things improving, Ms. Lavielle did not agree.
Ms. Lavielle pointed to a $3 billion increase in taxes with no decrease in spending in the state’s budget.
“Taxes increased on every single item on the revenue side,” she said, including for things like clothing and non-prescription drugs. “I would remove those,” she said.
Tax policy, she said, drives business growth. “We must adopt a more favorable tax policy for businesses.”
She added the state is still running a deficit despite the tax increases. She said the governor’s office says the deficit is $60 million, but the office of Policy Analysis says it is $98 million.
Mr. Hoffstatter agreed taxes are too high, but, using figures from the state comptroller’s office, said the state deficit has been declining from $3.2 billion to $143 million to a projected $26 million in 2013.
“We need to control taxes and have a game plan to attract businesses,” he said, particularly technologies such as fuel cells.
“If we are going to invest in the future, we have to pick some (businesses) to support,” he said. “We have to have vision ... cut taxes ... make express loans.”
Talk of state spending led to a discussion of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities, which Ms. Lavielle said amount to $40 billion.
“If we do nothing,” she said, “it will be necessary to raise taxes, cut back on essential services, or default on paying” out pensions.
State employees should increase their contributions from about 2% to 5% or 6% (as it now stands for hazardous duty workers and teachers, respectively), she said, and called for a cost of living increase until the pensions are 80% funded.
Mr. Hoffstatter said pensions are the “largest budget driver,” and as a selectman took a stand that Wilton teachers should take a pay freeze in their last contract negotiation.
“It’s going to hurt the unions if we don’t come to an agreement,” he said, adding whether it was state or local spending that had to be brought under control “we have to do it carefully.”
Connecticut’s unemployment rate, around 8.9%, is higher than the rate for New England as a whole, which stands at about 7.3%.
What she hears most from businesses, Ms. Lavielle said, is “get the fiscal house in order. ...If you do that, we know you won’t be beating on us for more taxes.”
Changing tax policies, she said, wreaks havoc with businesses’ long-range plans.
Bringing state spending under control will pave the way for an increased tax base, she said.
Mr. Hoffstatter spoke to the investment side. “We need to think like venture capitalists,” he said. “Where is the future going?”
Because New England is already built out, “we need a plan. It’s not going to happen by accident.”
Fuel cell and alternative fuel industries will attract jobs and save the environment, he said.
In their closing statements, Mr. Hoffstatter, who grew up in Wilton, went to Wilton schools and played ice hockey as a Warrior, described himself as a fiscal conservative and social progressive.
Growing up, politics, he said, “didn’t seem like partisanship. It was more about family and community.”
He described the partisanship that pervades much of politics today as “obscene.”
“I teach social studies,” he said. “Our country and government are something we should be proud of.”
Ms. Lavielle, who spent 25 years in business, said “it’s not all doom and gloom — I wouldn’t be here if it was.
“We need open minds in Hartford ... we need bipartisanship. I am very eager to continue serving.”
She said being elected two years ago “was one of the most moving things that ever happened to me. I take it very seriously.”