The state's fiscal crisis was front and center as the three candidates vying for retiring state Rep. John Hethrington's 125th District seat fielded questions on a range of topics during a lively debate held Monday at New Canaan Town Hall.
Sponsored by the New Canaan League of Women Voters, the debate was well attended considering the third and final Presidential debate was scheduled to be broadcast later in the evening. More than 100 people packed the Town Hall auditorium to standing-room-only to hear Republican candidate Tom O'Dea, Democratic candidate Mark Robbins and Green Party of Connecticut candidate David Bedell spar for a third time over the issues pertaining to the recently redrawn 125th District, which includes about two thirds of New Canaan and about one third of Wilton.
The "quadruple-header" also included a debate between state Rep. Larry Cafero (R-142nd), House minority leader, and his challenger, Democrat Kate Tepper; a debate between State Senator Toni Boucher (R-26th) and her challenger, Democrat Carolanne Curry; and a debate between State Senator L. Scott Frantz (R-36th), his challenger, 27-year-old Stamford resident and Democrat Daniel Dauplaise, and Green Party candidate Remy Chevalier. (Note: Patch will present coverage of these debates in separate reports later this week.) The event was presented in two segments — the first with the candidates for state Senate, the second with the candidates for state House.
When asked whether he would lean more toward raising taxes or reducing spending in order to balance the state budget, O'Dea said "First of all I don't think you need to have more taxes and less spending to balance the budget. I think you can have less taxes and less spending and still do that."
"What I propose is a 10 percent cut, across the board, of all state spending," said O'Dea, a longtime New Canaan resident and current elected member of the New Canaan Town Council. "We've had increases in state spending for many, many years — we had the largest tax increase in the history of the state this last go around — and we still have a deficit. I believe that if we lower taxes for corporations and for individuals, and for our retirees, more people will come into the state and pay taxes, and we will see an increase in revenue."
O'Dea, who works as a defense attorney with Halloran and Sage LLP, where he focuses primarily on litigation concerning the transportation and trucking industry, said if elected he would propose eliminating taxes on pensions and social security. He said that measure would not only have the affect of keeping more seniors in the state, it would also attract some from out of state. "That way, the influx of elderly will increase revenues," he said.
Robbins, who has a background in real estate development and currently serves as founder and principal of local real estate and energy consulting firm MHR Development, said Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration has already made great strides to reduce spending.
"A lot has been done by the current administration to reduce costs," Robbins said, adding that Malloy has already slashed the bi-annual state budget by $2 billion a year. "Plus we've eliminated about 2,500 executive brach employees — and [the number of state] agencies has been reduced from 81 to 60."
"There is a whole lot more that we can do — but I would like to point out that 75% of the budget is comprised of higher education, health care and public safety — and I don't think we want to jeopardize any of those," said Robbins, who is the first Democrat to run for the 125th District seat in 26 years.
Bedell, an English teacher, environmentalist and avid bicyclist who currently serves as treasurer for the CT Green Party and as a board member for Teachers Against Prejudice, said "what we need is smart spending and smart taxation."
"I don't believe in cutting the programs that are essential to the people of the state," Bedell said. "We could cut out some wasteful spending — boondoggles such as the New Britain to Hartford Busway (aka CTfastrak) which tore up a railroad right of way and, instead of instituting rail service, we built a busway."
"We also need smart taxation — finding the right balance between property taxes and income taxes," he added. "Perhaps instead of taxing things we are in favor of, such as work and business, we can tax things we want to discourage such as we already do with cigarettes and alcohol. Perhaps we could institute a carbon tax…"
In his rebuttal, O'Dea said his opponent, Robbins, "believes that a tax increase is in order and that our governor has done a heroic job."
"If you believe that our fiscal house in fine shape than I'm not your candidate," O'Dea said. "There are numerous independent accounting organizations that have put Connecticut as in the worst financial shape of all the states. I believe that our department heads can be asked to cut 10 percent — they do it in the private sector all the time — we should be able to do it in the public sector as well."
Robbins, a member of the New Canaan Conservation Commission, a trustee of the New Canaan Nature Center and a member of the Business and Environment Committee of SoundWaters, said there are other ways to attract business to the state beside cutting taxes.
"I believe in cuts… we need to cut the nonproductive behavior in the General Assembly," he said, inciting laughter from some of the audience members.
Robbins said most communities in the state could be saving millions in energy costs if only the state would "promote decentralized power and energy conservation across the board."
"We are home to the solution — we are, this evening, sitting on the Tennessee Valley gas line — which is right underneath us, right here in New Canaan. We have provided easements to Yankee Gas — but we are not tapping it, we are 100 years behind — and we've got to get with it," he said. "[Connecticut] invented the helicopter, the escalator, the Frisbee, the LEGO, the Jarvic heart — we can solve the state's energy challenges as well…"
Getting back to the issue of taxes and spending, Bedell said one area where savings can be found is to "cut the enormous amount of money we spend in our criminal justice system waging the war against drugs, which has been a failure."
"Instead of putting so much money into arresting our young people and incarcerating them — if we were to legalize and tax and regulate marijuana, it could become a revenue stream rather than a cause of so much grief for so many families," Bedell said.
When asked what can be done to help reduce or hold down energy costs in Connecticut, Robbins said the natural answer is natural gas.
"Natural gas will help us save in energy operating costs and in reducing our carbon footprint, but it's also a solution to job growth for the state," he said. "It will bring jobs to the state in the thousands as we convert from oil to natural gas. It's also an opportunity to reduce line loss and distribute power locally through distributed generation, creating a grid that is robust and store-resilient."
"Connecticut produces more fuels cells that any other state in the country — unfortunately we export most of them to South Korea," Robbins added. "We could deploy them here and cut our electric costs from the current 18 cents per kilowatt hour to about 3 cents per kilowatt hour. The net result would be approximately $10 million for each municipality in savings in the first 12 months…"
Bedell said while he agrees that natural gas is preferable to oil or coal, because it is cleaner burning, "it has other health problems."
"One reason that natural gas is so cheap now is because they've been fracking out in Pennsylvania and they're talking about doing it in New York," Bedell said. "This breaks up the shale underground to release the gas — but it also releases pollutants into the ground water, which leads to all kinds of health effects."
"What I'd like to do is pass a bill to ban fracking in Connecticut before it starts, in order to protect public health," Bedell said, adding that the state should be pursuing alternative energy sources including solar and wind.
"Plus here in Connecticut we are sitting on megawatts of untapped energy in the form of energy efficiency," Bedell added. "So much of the power we generate is wasted — we need to make all of our buildings more efficient and all of our appliances more efficient."
O'Dea, who has served on the New Canaan Personnel Advisory Board; as vice chairman of the New Canaan Republican Town Committee; and as a member of the State of Connecticut Judicial Selection Commission, said while he is not opposed to natural gas, "I want to point that … if we tap into that [natural gas] line [in New Canaan], we will have to build a little substation in Waveny [Park]… but there's quite a few people here in town who don't want Waveny touched."
"Also, in 2006, about a year after I was elected to the town council, I reached out to Yankee Gas about tapping-in [to the line] to see if it could be done… their response to me was that it was too costly and there wouldn't be enough customers."