Wilton's new legislators share impressions from Hartford: exciting, exhausting — and affordable housing

WILTON — The two new state legislators representing the town took part in a forum at the Wilton Library, offering constituents a legislative primer based on their first weeks in Hartford.

The Wilton Library, in conjunction with Wilton's League of Women Voters, hosted state Rep. Keith Denning (D-42nd District) and state Sen. Ceci Maher, D-26th District, both of whom live in Wilton and won their first elections in November.

"It's really fun and it's really exciting and it's exhausting and it's a ton of information at once," said Maher, whose district includes Darien, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

With 4,000 bills under consideration at the legislative session got underway at the start of the year, both shared examples of how lobbyists — who court the newly elected politicians — have provided them with points of general information as they've moved forward in navigating the sea of information.

"They actually have a wealth of information to give you a good background," said Denning, who represents New Canaan and Ridgefield in addition to Wilton, noting they have to be discerning when interacting with lobbyists. 

Each freshmen legislator shared information at the Tuesday evening forum about the political workings of their respective chambers and caucuses with regard to how a bill can reach the floor for a vote. Maher also noted the importance of citizen input, especially at public hearings.

"About 40 percent of the bills get changed or killed or reformatted somehow because the public has come to give testimony," she said.

"It's really, really important to do that, because it really does impact how bills are written," she said.

Denning said he was pleased with this first year of allowing Connecticut residents a chance for both in-person and virtual testimony.

"It opened up the doors for so many citizens to be able to testify," he said, urging residents to reach out to him with questions or comments.

"Keep us on our toes," Denning said. "Hold us accountable. If there's something that you don't like that we're doing, let us know. ... The more people that get involved in the process, the better it gets."

Constituents raised several questions during the 90-minute question-and-answer forum, hosted by Pam Klem of the League of Women Voters, including those related to aid-in dying, early voting and housing.

Denning, who is serving on the Insurance & Real Estate, Public Health and Transportation Committees, stressed that municipalities need to come up with plans and proposals on how to build affordable housing on their own. Calling affordable housing "the third-rail of Connecticut politics," he said the future success of the state's economy is contingent on finding affordable housing for its workforce.

"It is a problem," Denning said. "We do need to build housing. We cannot grow the state in business if we do not grow our housing stock."

Constituents in his district broadly support the concept of affordable housing, he said, but they also fear their hometowns growing in density to become like New Rochelle, N.Y,

While Denning challenged towns to come forward with specific ideas for high-density growth, ideally in places that can link smoothly with public transportation, such as Georgetown, he said that he would let residents decide the message they want him to champion in Hartford.

Neither he nor Maher spoke in favor of any housing bills under consideration, which Denning said are "too broad" and do not address specific problems.

Maher, who chairs the Children's Committee, vice chairs the Higher Education & Employment Committee, and serves on the Energy and Technology, Human Services, and Judiciary Committees, said some of the municipalities are trying to plan ahead on the issue.

State-owned land may provide a viable option for affordable housing, including a parcel near the Department of Motor Vehicles in Norwalk, she said.

"It's about how do we be creative?" she said. "How do we think about it ... without at the same time imposing new laws or statutes that aren't going to get us further along."