Senate candidates make their case

Bryan Haeffele photos
A comment on Will Haskell’s age drew boos from the large crowd of voters at Tuesday night’s forum for local candidates running for state office. A near-capacity crowd filled the Middlebrook auditorium, which holds 650 people, to hear from Haskell, the Democratic candidate for the 26th state Senate District and the incumbent he is challenging, Republican Toni Boucher.

Also on the dais on Oct. 16 were candidates for the 125th state House District — incumbent Republican Tom O’Dea and Democratic challenger Ross Tartell and 143rd state House District candidates incumbent Republican Gail Lavielle and Democratic challenger Stephanie Thomas. (See related story.) The event was moderated by Jean Rabinow of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut who threatened to end the event following the disruption.

The interruption occurred when Haskell repeated a claim he has often made, that Boucher said the state went too far in its restrictive gun laws following the Sandy Hook shooting. He said she made the remark at an event earlier this year attended by Republicans. While answering a question about gun laws, O’Dea took issue with Haskell’s comments, saying “There is not a person in this room who has done more for gun safety … than Sen. Boucher. Sorry, Will, but if you keep attacking her like that I’m going to call you out, because you’re wrong. You graduated college last May …” At that point the crowd drowned out his remarks.

He continued, “Toni Boucher has argued harder than anyone in this state for gun safety and the safety of our children and the welfare of our residents.” That elicited a round of applause.

On the issue of gun safety, Boucher said she was “one of only three state senators to write the toughest-in-the-country gun law — 1160.” This was a sweeping 2013 bill that affected the sale of long guns in Connecticut, mental health provisions for owning a gun, ammunition sales, magazine capacity, and establishment of a deadly weapons offender registry.

“As a result, I was challenged in a primary by a Republican to take me out. The good news is I got the most votes of anyone in the state in the state Senate.” This year, she said, she has received a record of distinction from Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence. She also voted for the prohibition of bump stock sales, which went into effect recently, and put in a bill that would result in a higher penalty for anyone who called in gun threats to a school. That bill passed, she said.

Haskell, who has also been recognized by the gun violence group, replied the state has not gone far enough with its gun laws. “You shouldn’t be able to order ghost guns,” he said, referring to guns that can be mail-ordered in parts without a serial number. “You shouldn’t be able to buy multiple guns in one transaction. … If you’re buying multiple handguns at once, the chances you’re going to use them in a criminal manner goes up 64%.” He added that when he goes door-to-door and asks people about the issues that concern them, “the most common response I hear is common-sense gun regulation. … this is an issue of moral clarity and severe urgency in Connecticut. People don’t feel safe and it’s our job to fix that.”

Income tax

The gun issue came up in the middle of the forum. The first question focused on the feasibility of phasing out the state income tax and personal property tax.

Haskell called the proposal an easy way to win votes. Accounting for 56% of the state’s revenue, he said eliminating it would be a mistake, taking away $11 billion from an $18-billion budget, and that tax reform is a better idea. “I think the best way to build our economy for the next 20 years is not to revert to an economic policy from the last 20 years, it’s to instead invest in the next generation of workers, the next generation of small businesses, the next generation of entrepreneurs. I’d rather invest some money into a student loan forgiveness program … and help them start their careers and businesses and families here in Connecticut.”

Boucher, on the other hand, believes the state can phase out the income tax, saying there was a time the state did not have one and prospered. To phase out the tax the state must cut costs, she said, focusing on pension, wage and healthcare reforms for state workers. “If we just benchmarked the state employee contract with our local police, fire and teachers, we could balance the budget.” A contract Gov. Dannel Malloy worked out with state labor unions will cost the state more than $300 million, she said.

Later, in a rebuttal, she reminded the audience the income tax was intended to be temporary and fringe costs “have gone through the roof. … We have to do something about this to make this state affordable.” The ways to do that are lowering state contracts and realigning state health benefits, she said.

School funding

Another question focused on education funding and the education cost-sharing (ECS) grant. “Education is the best investment we can make,” Haskell said, identifying himself as a “proud graduate of the Westport public schools.” The problem is, he said, the state has some “wonderful schools,” like those in Wilton, and yet, so close by, other schools are falling behind. Beyond being a “moral failing, it’s bad economic policy,” he said, adding the ECS formula should be reformed. He pointed out Massachusetts now relies less heavily on property taxes to fund schools “and it’s really working out.”

The ECS formula started as a good formula, she said, but has now become a political formula with 45 area variables every year. She brought up Malloy’s attempt to transfer $400 million in teacher pension obligations onto municipalities saying, “we stopped that and we brought funds back to our underfunded schools, and arrived at a new ECS formula. We have a lot more work to do on that … education continues to drive my passion for public service.

On the ballot question regarding a transportation lockbox, both candidates said they were in favor of it but their views differed on the matter of tolls.

Boucher said people are telling me tolls will be just another tax taking money out of their disposable income, maybe as much as $50 a week, $200 a month. Connecticut cannot afford tolls right now until it reduces some of the other costs. Let’s talk about it if you reduce the gas tax. … Let’s talk about it if we restructure our tax policy.”

She called for a short-term needs assessment for roads, rails and bridges and a long-term transportation plan that meets the needs of the business sector.

Haskell called Boucher out for discussing costs “when we don’t even know where tolls would go yet.” He pointed out Connecticut is the only state between Maine and North Carolina that does not have out-of-state drivers and trucking companies contribute to road maintenance as they pass through. “This doesn’t make us uniquely advantaged to taxpayers, it makes us uniquely disadvantaged as we bear the sole brunt of maintaining our roads.”

Connecticut drivers paid $6 million in tolls to Massachusetts last year, while Massachusetts drivers contributed nothing to Connecticut. From New York to Boston, “they can’t avoid Connecticut,” he said.

He likened tolls to user fees, saying commuters who ride the trains must buy a ticket. “We should ask the same of those who use the roads.”

Both candidates were in favor of no-excuses absentee voting, but they differed on early voting, with Haskell in favor and Boucher’s comments indicating she is not.

Both candidates also agreed they support the state water plan with Haskell saying he “will always stand on the side of environmental resources.” Boucher said clean water is “critically important” and she is also worried about plastic pollution. Neither candidate addressed the second part of the question which asked for comment about Aquarion’s application to withdraw as much as one million gallons of water a day from the Cannondale well field.