Wilton legislators see opportunities

After years of being in real minority positions, Wilton’s legislators are seeing the opportunity to wield some power this legislative session as political parties are at parity in the state Senate and approach equal numbers in the House of Representatives.

Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) has been elevated from ranking member to sharing the chairmanship of the education and transportation committees. She will also serve as vice chairman on the Banking Committee, and as a member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. In addition, she is a Chief Deputy Senate Republican Majority Leader, which puts her third on the leadership ladder on the Republican side of the senate.

Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) will also be part of the Republican leadership, having been named an assistant leader. She will remain on the Transportation Committee, but moves from the Appropriations Committee to Finance, Revenue and Bonding. She also remains on the House Republican Screening Committee, which reviews every bill that comes to the house, and she is ranking member of the Education Committee.

Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) has moved up to Deputy Republican Leader at Large and will continue serving on the Transportation Committee and the Judiciary Committee. He will also be on the Legislative Management Committee.
One of the new opportunities Republicans will have this legislative session is the ability to split committee votes. Unlike the federal Congress, all Connecticut legislative committees include both house and senate members. Since Democrats are still in the house majority, they will hold a majority of house committee members, but with the senate tied, Republican senators can threaten to kill a bill by forcing separate house and senate votes.

“That gives you a lot of influence on the agenda and public hearings,” Boucher said.

The senator said any bills she will submit will focus on the budget, education, and transportation this session, and Lavielle has already submitted a bill that would reverse the way the state approaches its budget formation process.

Using Wilton as an example, she said the Board of Finance looks at how much revenue it believes can be raised and then offers guidance to the boards of education and selectmen.

“In the legislature, you do the spending first and then the finance committee always has to ask where the revenue is coming from,” she said. “Revenue estimates have not been anywhere close to realistic. I want to be involved in that process.

“We should be defining what our revenue potential is before we actually define spending. If you don’t know how much you have to spend, how can you spend it?”

Boucher said she would like to ensure the Education Cost Sharing formula “does not further disadvantage our towns and communities.” Wilton’s ECS grant was further reduced by just over $200,000 in mid-fiscal year cuts.

She would also like to see many of the education mandates eliminated, stronger penalties for academic truancy, afterschool help for students who cannot read after the third grade, elimination of the common calendar, and increased support for gifted and talented students.

On the positive side, Boucher said she felt Gov. Dannel Malloy, who gave his State of the State speech on Jan. 4, “appears to have been listening to us.”

She approved of his comments about forming a “predictable budget process,” adding, “he did talk about structural costs of the state and it’s about time we talked about that.”

Tom O’Dea, speaking in an interview with MeettheLeaders.com, said “I believe the governor and the speaker [Joe Aresimowicz] when they say they want Republican input on the budget, and frankly, they need it. In order for us to pass a budget this session with these economic problems and realities we’re facing, they’re going to need Republican input and Republican support.”
Common concerns
Transportation and the state employee pension fund were issues about which all three legislators expressed concern.

Lavielle said she was happy to get on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, which encompasses transportation bonding.

“I felt it was important to be in the place where the bonding decisions are made,” she said. “We need some serious transportation spending where we live and it hasn’t risen to the top of the priority list … things like the Danbury line. I think we need to be louder, putting together folks who live on the line — and a possible extension — to be a louder, more unified voice.”

Boucher said she would oppose any attempt to pass a mileage use tax that would charge motorists for the number of miles they drive. She would also like to limit bus and rail fare increases without legislative approval.

O’Dea said he thought the idea of a transportation “lockbox,” in which taxes such as gasoline taxes intended for transportation usage are kept safe for that purpose only, is still viable.

“The problem is, if … we can raid it when needed [for other purposes] it’s not a lockbox. I do think there’s room for negotiations on that. If it’s a true lockbox, I think there’s a lot of support for it.

“I know the governor wants it,” he said. “I think he’s got more of problem on the other side of the aisle with the ability to get at it in the future if needed. The Republicans want a solid lockbox. … I believe the governor is more in line with Republicans about wanting a solid lockbox.”

The state pension fund is seriously underfunded, and legislators said having employees make a greater contribution would go a long way to filling the gap.

“Most state employees pay 2% of their salary to pensions,” Lavielle said. Teachers pay 6% and the private sector averages 7%. Two percent is ridiculously low.”

Boucher proposed state employees should pay 8%. She would also prohibit including longevity payments, overtime, and mileage expenses to salaries on which pensions are figured at the time of an employee’s retirement.

“Then we can cut out the most onerous taxes — real estate, social security, inheritance — and bring down the top [income tax] rate of 6.99% to 4.5%,” she said.

O’Dea said he is hopeful the unions “will come to the table and talk about how they can help us … help them.” Saying state employees deserve their pensions, he added, “we want to make sure what they’ve negotiated and bargained for is going to be available for them.”

Lavielle is also concerned about Malloy’s emphasis on cutting spending. While she believes spending needs to be curtailed, “if all you’re doing is cutting … you can’t grow the economy and you can’t create conditions where companies can grow jobs.”

What was missing from his speech, she said, was “a very effective economic policy that would make it attractive for companies to come here and create jobs. You have to grow the economy while cutting spending, otherwise you can’t cut taxes.”