Guns, railroads, Common Core: Boucher and Sharlach face off

“Economic development in the state is job No. 1,” said Phil Sharlach, the Democrat seeking the 26th District seat in the state Senate.

“The current leadership has enacted too many policies that make Connecticut expensive,” said Toni Boucher, the Republican incumbent, taking aim at the Democratic legislative majority and governor. “It taxes too much, borrows too much and spends too much.”

“Solutions!” said Mr. Sharlach, who has been as a management consultant for accounting firms like PriceWaterhouse and worked for the federal Government Accountability Office, or GAO. “My background in consulting is just that: solutions.”

Those opening remarks set the tone for a friendly but politically charged debate between the candidates for the 26th District State Senate seat, which Ms. Boucher has held since 2009, representing citizens in Ridgefield, Redding, New Canaan, Weston, Wilton, Westport, and Bethel.

The League of Women Voters event drew about 70 people to the new public library in Ridgefield on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Gun law

The state’s gun violence act, passed in the wake of the Newtown school shooting and considered one the nation’s strongest gun laws, was backed by both candidates.

“I absolutely support it,” said Mr. Sharlach. “It’s the right thing to be done.”

Ms. Boucher said she’d voted for the law.

“Part of my job is to listen carefully to the district,” she said. After the Newtown shooting she said there was very high interest in the bill, which took such controversial steps as putting limits on large-capacity magazines and assault weapon sales.

“Seventy percent of the district wanted support for this gun bill,” Ms. Boucher said. “I felt I needed to represent the district.”

What about efforts to repeal the law?

“I would not repeal — not repeal — this law,” Mr. Sharlach said.

“I feel this gun bill shouldn’t be repealed, but it could be made better,” Ms. Boucher said.

Transportation, taxes

On economic growth, taxes and transportation infrastructure, the candidates took different slants.

“What businesses need in Connecticut is not corporate welfare or subsidies,” Ms. Boucher said. “They need a reduction in costs.”

Mr. Sharlach said the state would have to face up to the need to improve its transportation infrastructure, even though it will be costly.

“We have not made the investment,” he said.

Ms. Boucher said she’d long advocated improving rail lines, fighting to upgrade the signal system to allow better service along the Danbury branch that runs through Wilton, Georgetown, Ridgefield, and Redding.

“Everyone thought I was a dinosaur, speaking about rails,” she said. “Now everyone’s on board.”

Mr. Sharlach agreed that commuter lines are important, but said freight railroads — important to businesses — had been neglected.

If rail freight service improved, there’d be fewer trucks on the highways.

“Get commercial traffic off I-95 — which can be done!” he said.

Ms. Boucher said the state should put operation of the commuter railroads out to bid, rather than simply renewing its contract with Metro-North.

Mr. Sharlach warned that Republican politicians’ focus on lower taxes could mean reduced support for railroads.

“If Tom Foley is elected governor, the pressure is going to be on to shut down the branch lines,” he said.

“If your idea is to cut expenses and not even look — what are you going to do when the trains stop?”

Voting amendment

The candidates were asked where they stood on the state constitutional question on the election ballot, which would  remove restrictions that limit voting to Election Day at a hometown polling place.

“No, I do not support it,” Ms. Boucher said.

“Absolutely support it,” Mr. Sharlach said.

“Nobody should be denied the right to vote.”

Ms. Boucher explained her position further.

“I support ‘no excuse’ absentee balloting,” she said.

But she said having people vote in their home polling places helped fight voter fraud. “Showing up in person is fundamental to the process,” she said. “We found there were individuals who voted in some of our communities who didn’t exist.”

Mr. Sharlach reiterated his belief that voting should be opened up more to accommodate people who have difficulty getting to a hometown polling place on a Tuesday.

“We’re a mobile society,” he said. “It’s freedom of choice, freedom of the ballot. Nobody should be denied the right to vote.”

A question asked the candidates about state statute 8-30g, which allows developers to circumvent local zoning on projects with 30% of housing units set aside as “affordable” under the state’s guidelines.

“It should be defined in a different way,” Mr. Sharlach said.

Ms. Boucher felt the law had been misused, but said legislators who wanted to change it ran into resistance.

“I believe this well-intentioned bill has been exploited for profitability,” she said.

“We’ve tried to change it and make it more community-friendly,” Ms. Boucher said.

“We should be allowed to have communities situate their affordable housing.”

What about air quality?

Ms. Boucher recalled her days as Wilton’s state representative.

“I was the deciding vote in the House to shut down the ‘sooty six’ coal plants that we had here in Connecticut,” she said. “I proposed a bill to reduce car emissions in Connecticut.”

Mr. Sharlach didn’t argue.

“I agree with Toni,” he said, but added that clean water is also a major concern.

“Every single inland waterway in the state of Connecticut is polluted,” he said.

“If you’re a fisherman you can’t, on a regular basis, eat your fish.”

Mental health

The candidates were asked about the state’s approach on mental health issues.

Mr. Sharlach said funding of mental health programs was too often shortchanged.

“Most of our problems are economic,” he said. “Mental health programs should not become an exception.”

Ms. Boucher said that when the state passed the gun violence bill after the Newtown school shooting, there should have been more focus on the mental health system.

“The true elephant in the room is mental health,” she said. “Psychiatric hospitals are overburdened.”

“There are certain circumstances where institutionalization may be appropriate,” Ms. Boucher added “Involuntary institutionalization should be discussed.”

Common Core

Both candidates had doubts about the ‘Common Core curriculum’ being instituted in schools.

“Teachers should be allowed to teach,” Mr. Sharlach said. “Our teachers should not be in the business of preparing students for tests.”

But he said improving student learning is a good goal.

“We can’t knock the objective; it’s the implementation,” he said.

“Our teachers should be the ones to decide the content, and how they teach.”

Ms. Boucher had concerns with the way Common Core standards were adopted, through action by the Commissioner of Education, rather than a vote of the legislature.

“It didn’t go through the legislative committees,” she said. “If you’re going to roll out something so massive, you should do some kind of control groups.”

Ms. Boucher also said school officials across the district gave her varying opinions of the Common Core approach.

“I have seven towns,” she said. “Some are very happy with it.”

Money and politics

What, if anything, should be done to rein in money in political campaigns?

“People have lost trust in our government at all levels,” Ms. Boucher lamented. “I do believe there should be much more disclosure.

“I don’t think ‘attack ads’ should be allowed with public financing.”

Mr. Sharlach thought corporate money should be banned from politics.

“A corporation can’t go to jail, but it can do unlimited funding through PACs,” he said.

“No corporate funding!” he said. “If you’re not a person, you can’t contribute to a campaign.”