Business leaders hear Haskell’s plans

Incoming state Sen. Will Haskell (D-26) addressed a group of real estate agents and other concerned citizens on Dec. 19, and reiterated a number of his campaign pledges to address Connecticut’s sputtering economic engine.

He was invited to Realty 7 on Danbury Road by the agency’s owner, Peg Koellmer, who said she and the people assembled were concerned about a number of issues including a home buyer’s conveyance tax, the state’s negative population growth and the fact it is not “a friendly place to die.”

One of the reasons he decided to run, Haskell said, is he doesn’t think enough young people are excited about moving to Connecticut. To attract the next generation of businesses means attracting the next generation of workers.

He said he called the legislative leader of GE and asked why the company moved to Massachusetts. While transportation was part of it, “the biggest thing he said was Connecticut couldn’t provide ‘a young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce.’” Although 40,000 students earn their degrees in Connecticut, “a vast number” start their careers elsewhere, he said, adding “not a single one of his friends” from Staples High School has come back to Connecticut.

“Nobody’s choosing between Brooklyn and Bridgeport,” he said. Revitalizing Connecticut’s cities will pay dividends for suburban towns like Wilton, Ridgefield, and New Canaan as young city dwellers get older and start families.

“If we can invest in our cities and create some slightly smaller [than New York or Boston], slightly cheaper, safe cities where you don’t have to take your car into work everyday in a corporate office park, where you can take public transportation or walk from your apartment to your office building, I think that would be exciting for members of my generation.”

He also hit on his hope the state can pass a form of student loan forgiveness. “If you’re a Connecticut resident and you graduate from one of our amazing colleges and universities and you stay here for seven years, you become a Connecticut taxpayer and decide to start your small business, or your corporate career and your family in Connecticut, we’ll give you a small break on your student loans,” he said, adding student loan debt in Connecticut averages $34,000 per student, the highest in the country. “Once you’re here for seven years, I think you’ll be around a lot longer.”

He said he and other legislators are working on a revenue-neutral way to create such a program.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Connecticut needs to be more attractive for retirees, he said. If high school graduates stay here, it’s likely their families will, too.

As a financial incentive, he supports eliminating the estate tax, as well as eliminating taxes on Social Security. Eliminating those taxes would not negatively affect state finances in a big way since they account for about $500 million, “a drop in the bucket compared to what we could bring in if we simply do a better job of keeping retired folks in Connecticut.”

More revenue

One member of the audience asked what is on the table to generate revenue within the state. Haskell said there are $36 billion of state employee pension fund liabilities. Adding teachers to the mix raises that amount to $100 billion. He said he would oppose any legislation that would delay paying the debt another five, 10 or 15 years.

What he is excited about is the legacy obligation trust model. The state owns “remarkable assets that are underutilized,” he said, including valuable real estate in the form of land and buildings.

“If we allow those assets to be privately managed and send the profits directly into the pension fund, it could address our legacy obligations over the next decade,” he said. “It’s not by any means a silver bullet, but it gets us working in the right direction.”

He also discussed his support of tolls. “Connecticut taxpayers bear the sole brunt of maintaining our infrastructure,” he said, he said adding Connecticut drivers paid $6 million in tolls to Massachusetts last year.

Toll collection methods can be creative he said, suggesting commuters could be offered discounts and tax rebates could be offered to small businesses.

“We have to be offered a seat at the table,” he said, because “in Fairfield County we’re going to be more impacted by tolls, perhaps, than anyone else.”

One of his conditions for supporting tolls is a lockbox to use money collected for transportation purposes. The Department of Transportation has projected tolls could raise $1 billion in the first two years, he said, but that does not include some of the things he would like to see, including if a person passes under a toll within 10 miles of where their E-ZPass is registered they would not have to pay that toll.

A map including more than 80 toll locations put out by the state was irresponsible, he said. Placement of tolls needs to be strategic so drivers don’t hop on and off tolled roads, burdening local streets. Putting tolls only at the state’s borders would jeopardize federal highway funds Connecticut receives, he said.

Haskell also suggested the state needs to stop thinking of itself as 169 separate entities, which brought up the issue of regionalization, which he preferred to call municipal cooperation. He said there are opportunities to create efficiencies.

“The best way we can keep property taxes down is to find cost-saving opportunities with nearby towns.”

To address many of the issues he spoke about, Haskell said he hopes to have a roundtable discussion with corporate and municipal leaders some time in the first half of 2019.