Wilton legislators wrangle with tough state issues
WILTON — Early voting, big business and tolls were some of the topics discussed at the legislative breakfast held Feb. 1 by the Wilton League of Women Voters.
Attending the breakfast at the Greens at Cannondale were Wilton legislators, state Sen. Will Haskell (D-26), state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125), and about 40 members of the public.
Held in the style of a Q&A session, the discussion was started by League member Pam Klem who asked the legislators what their priorities were regarding election laws and campaign finance reform.
She noted that last year a number of bills the League supported had failed, including an “early voting” bill that would have proposed an amendment to the state constitution to allow for a “no excuse” early voting period of three days before an election.
Haskell said Connecticut has some antiquated voting laws. He supports three days of early voting — Saturday, Sunday and Monday leading up to the election, to allow working people and students ample opportunity to cast their ballots. He said this wasn’t a “Democratic-Republican” issue per se, because states like Texas and West Virginia have early voting laws.
Last year, he said, he proposed a bill that would allow Connecticut voters to apply for absentee ballots online through the secretary of the state’s online portal. That bill didn’t pass but he said he intends to reintroduce it this year.
On the subject of campaign finance reform, Haskell is a participant in the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP). “It evens the playing field of candidates from every background,” he said. In fact, he said he learned the previous evening that he had qualified for CEP in 2020.
CEP is a voluntary program that provides grants to candidates who get a specific number of small donations from individuals and who don’t take money from large special-interest donors. The goal is to encourage the candidacies of people who otherwise would lack the resources or the connections needed to run a winning campaign and to motivate candidates to direct their attention to small-dollar donors rather than big-money interests.
Lavielle said she is also a strong proponent of CEP. “I have always participated in it,” she said. She agreed with Haskell that it “levels the playing field,” but said there is a far more important reason why she supports it. “People seem to think that legislators’ votes are highly influenced and controlled by the influence of contributions they receive,” she said.
CEP originally did not allow candidates to receive more than $100 from an individual donor, she said, but during the last election the limit was raised to $250, which she believed was too high, so she has decided never to take more than $100 from each donor. “I think this is a good framework for legislators to not tie their actions to the contributions they receive,” she said.
On the subject of early voting, Lavielle said she supports no-excuse absentee voting at the town clerk’s office, which she said is “tantamount to early voting.”
O’Dea said his legislative focus is not on voting rights, but he is not in favor of early voting due to the costs. He believes in “easing up” on the absentee ballot procedure.
The legislators were asked what bills they planned to propose this session and which ones they planned to fight.
Lavielle said the state is terrible when it comes to bilingual education (which is different from English as a second language). She supports students remaining competent in their native language and acquiring another language to the same level.
It is an expensive proposition, she said, however, she believes it would dramatically improve the school system and prepare students to compete globally.
She is also concerned about decisions made by the Department of Developmental Services to eliminate programs that impact children from birth to three years old. She said the decisions were not based on quality standards so she would like to look into it further.
O’Dea said he plans to focus on small-business and private-sector growth. He said the last legislative session was harmful to industry.
He wants doctors to give estimates on their care, and he supports legislation that would allow settlement agencies the ability to offer immediate payouts to people in lieu of long-term structured settlements. His goal, he said, is to protect people from “predators” who offer them a very small percentage of their structured settlement payout.
Haskell supports “Dignity in Death” legislation that would allow citizens who are suffering from a terminal diagnosis to define their own final chapter in life.
He said he heard a number of heart-breaking stories from constituents and plans to fight for a smart, safe, Dignity in Death bill, “putting the power of decision-making back in the hands of patients,” he said.
Real estate broker Dagny Eason asked what the state is doing to encourage big businesses to come back to Connecticut. “It’s killing us,” she said.
Connecticut has been called a “toxic environment” for business, according to O’Dea, saying that’s why GE (General Electric) left the state.
He objected to a number of bills last session — paid funding for family medical leave, minimum wage increase, and Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities decisions in favor of employees, allowing them to get attorneys’ fees and damages. “I am certain this anti-business session we just had is a killer,” he said.
Lavielle agreed last year was difficult for businesses in the state.
“We need to reduce taxes to make them more reasonable, reduce spending, and get more revenue in at the same time, she said. “We need to do all three in order to grow.”
The state needs to be a better business-friendly tax environment, according to Haskell. “We need to do a better job encouraging large and small businesses,” he said.
On the flip side, he said there are businesses in the state that have job openings they can’t fill. For example, ASML in Wilton, he said, has 130 job openings that have been posted for over a year and they can’t find trained people to fill them.
Connecticut has the highest student loan debt per capita in the country, he said. He suggested offering a tax credit to employers who make payments on student loans for employees that went to school in Connecticut.
Haskell said there is a “disincentive” for businesses that can’t get their employees to their jobs because of transportation issues.
“We’ve got to do something to address the fact we have some of the worst infrastructure in the country,” he said.
On the issue of rails and transportation, Haskell said the state needs to spend more. He supports Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan for trucks-only tolls on 12 bridges to pay for wear and tear on the state’s highways. “Every other state has tolls,” he said.
Lavielle said transportation is a high priority, but she is not convinced tolls are the answer. Instead, she said, big trucks already pay a fuel tax related to their mileage when they go through Connecticut, so why not increase the fuel tax?
She said money in the state’s Special Transportation Fund has been diverted for other purposes and should be stopped. As far as rails go, she said there is “not enough rail” in any plan she has seen.
O’Dea said the cost to put up toll gantries and operate them will be costly and will not raise the revenue expected.
He came up with an idea, he said, but was unsure if the public would support it — raising the sales tax by 0.5 percent while lowering gas prices, making them the cheapest in New England.
Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice asked about the reported influx of unaccompanied immigrant children in Connecticut. She said the majority seem to be coming to Fairfield County.
Lavielle said Norwalk has received an influx of children from Latin America who require resources, money and expertise and need to go to school. She said Norwalk is going to need more Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) state funding to handle the influx.
“We don’t control immigration,” said O’Dea. He said he agrees with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who said not to send kids unaccompanied to America because of the high risk of death. He said the state is going to have a very hard time funding social services, and although it may seem harsh, for financial reasons, he said, he does not support unaccompanied immigrant children coming to Connecticut.
“We have a constitutional obligation to educate children,” Haskell said. He supports education funding for towns like Norwalk and Bridgeport who have an increased number of immigrants.