Fairfield’s state candidates face off on jobs, finances and tolls
FAIRFIELD — Candidates running for Fairfield’s General Assembly seats recently squared off in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Fairfield.
The event included Republican incumbent Tony Hwang and Democratic challenger Michelle McCabe for the state’s 28th Senate District, Democratic incumbent Cristin McCarthy-Vahey and Republican challenger Joanne Romano-Csonka for the state’s 133rd House District, as well as Republican incumbent Laura Devlin and Democratic challenger Carla Volpe for the state’s 134th House District.
Questions differed based on the race, with topics including the coronavirus, Connecticut’s future employment, the budget and transportation infrastructure.
28th state Senate District
McCabe said she believes it was important to explore tolling as a possible solution for the state’s Special Transportation Fund, which may go bankrupt as soon as 2022.
She said the state has three options: Connecticut taxpayers bare the entire burden of fixing the crumbling infrastructure, the state borrows money putting it on future generations or adding tolls to charge the large number of out-of-state drivers using the roads.
“Anyone that travels on the Merritt or on 95, or on 84 will see license plate after license plate after license plate,” she said. “I believe that out of state drivers should pay a user fee like they do in surrounding states, so that we can maintain our roads and bridges and trains.”
Hwang disagreed, saying “increasing revenue to go into a black hole is not the right way to go.”
He said the fund is a critical component of addressing the transportation infrastructure, but it also is one of the reasons Connecticut has one of the highest gasoline taxes in the country.
“We have received millions, if not billions, of dollars of that fund that should have been allocated to the transportation, but instead has been redirected to the general fund,” he said, adding the solution has to be a collaboration between federal, state and public agencies to have a more innovative, consumer-sensitive strategy.
The candidates also differed on how to makeup for tax revenue shortfalls as expenses increase due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hwang said the pandemic is a public health crisis that resulted in economic devastation, pointing out that there are about a million people requesting unemployment benefits. He said the state is seeing stores close or struggle to survive.
“We are in an economic challenge unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” Hwang said. “COVID has created a wrath of devastation. It’s going to require tremendous challenges for us to undertake recovery in this. There is a problem, but we need to have solutions.”
He said Connecticut government needs to change how it functions.
“We can no longer look at tax-and-spend as a continuum of putting pressure on people that are struggling already,” Hwang said. “We need to change government. We need to use technology to our advantage.”
McCabe said the state is on much stronger footing than expected.
“We are number three in terms of places that people are moving. Our rainy day fund is actually above the limit that has been placed on it at about $3 billion,” she said. “I think what, really, we need to be focused on is how do we invest those dollars in our residents and in our businesses’ ability to be able to weather the pandemic as it continues and emerge from the other side thriving.”
In order to do this, McCabe suggested investing in infrastructure that would allow businesses to pivot during the pandemic, in a time when they are switching between periods of opening and closing.
“Whether it’s a curbside program or helping with an online deliver system or even pivoting to a new form of manufacturer,” she said. “We need to be investing in their ability to do so. We need to be cutting through the red tape of onerous permitting that’s been slowing our business growth even before the pandemic.”
133rd state House District
Romano-Csonka said the state is no longer able to attract businesses.
“We’ve raised taxes to the point where business can not survive here.” she said. “We have to have incentive programs to bring them back. We also need to open up more trade schools.”
She said the state used to be a major hub for manufacturing and a lot of residents are unemployed, blue-collar workers, especially in light of the pandemic. She said trade schools would retrain this demographic to be able to work in new jobs.
McCarthy Vahey said it is important for Connecticut to remain a good place for workers to work and businesses to thrive. She thinks the state is already turning that around for a few reasons, including bringing pension liabilities under control and getting rid of the business entity tax.
But, she said one thing the state is learning from businesses is the importance of having the proper infrastructure — not just transportation infrastructure — but high speed internet as well.
“I was proud that Connecticut took the step to move forward with the 5G and to get things in place and get ready for that technology,” she said. “We’re all working and schooling from home and now we know how critical this infrastructure is for businesses being able to thrive.
The two candidates found common ground on the pandemic, saying the state needs to rely on public health experts.
McCarthy Vahey said there has to be sufficient and adequate contact tracing and testing, particularly for people not showing symptoms. She said the state needs to make sure it has support in place for small businesses and working families.
Romano-Csonka said the state needs to assure it has legislation in place that will continue safety measures, adding they have to be careful about opening places up and people need to continue wearing masks.
134th state House District
Volpe said ensuring unemployed people have healthcare is critical, especially since people lost their jobs in the pandemic.
“I want to make sure that we are extending that, and that we support that for those people,” she said.
Volpe said she saw many people trying to create new revenue streams during the lockdown, adding she wanted to support small businesses in that venture. She also said she supported investing in teaching machining and technology in schools.
Delvin said the phone calls she got from constituents about losing their jobs kept her up at night. She said people were in a situation they had never been in before and it was important to provide unemployment insurance.
“We were able to assure them that there was mortgage relief — they could defer mortgage payments,” Devlin said. “There was rental assistance. Your utilities couldn’t get shut off. Food insecurity was an issue. Which is why I started a food drive in Trumbull to support the Trumbull food pantry.”
The biggest thing the state needs to do, she said, is address the economy and bring businesses into Connecticut.
“2019 was the least business friendly legislative session that we have had in recent memory,” Devlin said.
Volpe said Hartford and Fairfield County have seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic and the state needs to adapt to how people might work from home in Connecticut for a company in another state.
The two also differed on how to approach the state’s pension challenges.
Volpe said tier 1 pensions are causing the issue and the other tiers are funded. She said State Treasurer Shawn Wooden was able to put an extra $61 million toward pension liabilities because of how robust the rainy day fund is.
“There have been mistakes in the past — by both parties,” Volpe said. “This has been about 70 years in the making, but I can tell you now that the party that is in the majority is making strides in the correct direction to right our ship financially.”
Delvin said the reason there is a rainy day fund and the state was able to contribute to pensions is because of Republican structural reforms that became part of the bipartisan budget. She said the Republicans’ proposed reforms — such as spending, bonding and volatility caps — will help get Connecticut’s fiscal house in order and address the state’s long-term liabilities.
She added it was disheartening when state employees got raises during the height of the pandemic and the state needs to revisit how it approaches contract agreements with state employees.