State Senate candidates discuss taxes, spending and education

Finances and taxes, education and transportation were discussed by Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher and Democrat Carolanne Curry, her challenger to represent the 26th District towns of Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Weston, Westport, New Canaan, and Bethel.

Ms. Boucher, in her fourth year in the state Senate after 12 years representing Wilton in the state House, and Ms. Curry, a Westport Democrat active in politics since Ella Grasso ran for governor in 1974, spoke Friday, Sept. 28, at a League of Women Voters forum at Founders Hall in Ridgefield.

The candidates were first asked to analyze the state's fiscal situation, and say what they favored to improve it.

"Barron's just proclaimed Connecticut the most fiscally mismanaged state in the country," Ms. Boucher said.

State spending is "7.2% more in the last two years" despite the fiscal downturn, she said.

Gov. Dannel Malloy and Democrats in the legislature gave the state "the largest retroactive tax increase in its history," she said. "This has jobs and people fleeing the state, and it's unsustainable."

Ms. Boucher supported the Republicans' "no-tax-increase alternative" budget "that does cut back on spending, that does look at the structurally higher costs: benefits and wages and salaries and retirement benefits that have to be more in line with the private sector."

She said, "We have to face the music. We have huge debt and unfunded liabilities."

Ms. Curry said "this fiscal mess is a mess you see across 50 states. ... This did not happen this year. ... There were years prior to this governor where there were opportunities to revise the budget."

The state's business climate could be improved in "two steps. It's the quality of our education, and it's taxes," Ms. Curry said. "If the education level in the state improves, we will be attracting businesses."

Ms. Boucher said high taxes are driving employers out of Connecticut, so the state needs to cut taxes — and to do that it must reduce state spending.

"We have to recognize and get real with the fact we have a spending problem," Ms. Boucher said. "The anti-business climate is well known and it's the reason businesses are leaving."

The candidates were asked under what circumstances they'd support raising taxes.

"Really, I can't see raising taxes at this point," Ms. Curry said. "The tax burden that's the greatest is the property tax."

Ms. Curry envisioned a program with caps or limits — which could be waived, if circumstances demanded it, by votes of town legislative bodies like a town meeting.

"If you could get agreement to have taxes capped — two, two and a half percent," she said, it might help seniors. "It would enhance real estate values. It would allow people to stay home. ... It would erase a burden we all feel is unfair."

Ms. Boucher said, "In this economy, no way should we be raising taxes."

The state should renegotiate workers' contracts, she said. "It used to be the private sector had better wages and benefits," Ms. Boucher said. "Now it's the reverse."


The candidates differed on education reform, which passed with bipartisan support in the last session.

"There's only two places you can make a difference, the home and the classroom," Ms. Boucher said.

An initially ambitious education reform bill was modified to address some concerns raised by teachers' unions.

"Teachers were worried about teacher evaluation and dismissal," Ms. Boucher said. Some difficult issues were put off for another time, so something would get done. "It's soft education reform," Ms. Boucher said. "But it's a good first step."

Ms. Curry said the reform bill was designed to help struggling urban schools, and would not benefit top schools like those in the 26th District. It may be counterproductive. "Teaching to the test is not teaching creativity," she said.

She also worried that the state has overemphasized expanding charter schools.

"Charter schools are using your tax dollars to get established, and it's not where you want our tax dollars to go, which is public education," Ms. Curry said.

Neither candidate liked "unfunded mandates" — state laws that order towns to meet standards or address problems, and end up requiring them to spend money to do it.

Ms. Boucher suggested "a two-thirds majority vote be required" to pass laws that include unfunded mandates.

Any new laws the candidates hoped to put forward?

"I had a whole list of about 30 suggestions, should I be lucky enough to be re-elected," Ms. Boucher said.

"I'm very involved in education reform," she said, adding she's also been "a strong advocate for rails." She'll push an effort to "re-electrify the train stations" on the Danbury branch line.

Over the years she "helped fight Super 7 through Ridgefield and Redding" as well as Wilton, her home town.

She hopes to "deal with our tax issues" and "phase out" such taxes as inheritance tax, she said.

Ms. Curry would seek property tax relief. Both New York and Massachusetts found ways to limit local property tax increases. It could help older people now being asked to "age at home" and could boost real estate values.

What about transportation issues: Tolls? Gasoline taxes? Mass transit? Roads?

"I want to get the trucks off 95. There's a way to do that," Ms. Curry said.

Much of the truck traffic on I-95 goes through Connecticut to the rest of New England, she said.

She proposed spending on road improvements targeted to encourage more trucks to take alternative routes north.

"We have the most congested corridor in the nation," Ms. Boucher said. "It's been neglected for 30 or 40 years."

Ms. Boucher said she worked on rail travel with former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who financed the purchase of 380 new rail cars.

She strongly opposed additional tolls and taxes to pay for improvements.

"Imagine the reintroduction of tolls!" she said. "I've fought this bitterly."

State gasoline taxes are already among the nation's highest. Gas tax funds "dedicated" to transportation too often get siphoned off by the legislature for other budgetary purposes, she said.

An "ethical" question was posed: What would candidates do if their constituents strongly favored one side of a particular issue, but their conscience and judgment of what would be best for the state and district favored the other?

Ms. Boucher, a veteran legislator, shared her "three Cs" hierarchy for tough decisions: "Your conscience, your constituency, your caucus." Right and wrong first, then the needs of people in the district, and then your political party's position.

"There are certain issues — death penalty, abortion" — where a legislator should vote on personal conscience. "You have to live with yourself first," Ms. Boucher said.

Ms. Curry offered a simple outlook.

"If you don't demonstrate the moral will," she said, "you're not good to anybody."

She pointed to the four Republican state senators in New York who'd voted with Democrats to legalize same-sex marriage. One had retired, one lost a primary, but two won primary battles.

"I will vote the right, ethical way," Ms. Curry said.