State Representative Larry Cafero (R-142nd), House minority leader, and his challenger, Democrat Kate Tepper, tackled questions on topics ranging from how to deal with the state's fiscal mess to how to attract and retain businesses to how to keep the senior population from leaving for other states during a candidate's debate held Monday at New Canaan Town Hall. The newly redrawn 142nd district includes Norwalk and a sliver of New Canaan, whereas prior to redistricting it included only Norwalk.
Sponsored by the New Canaan League of Women Voters, the "quadruple-header" event also included a debate among the three candidates vying for retiring state Rep. John Hethrington's 125th District seat, including Republican Tom O'Dea, Democrat Mark Robbins and Green Party of Connecticut candidate David Bedell, as well as a debate between State Senator Toni Boucher (R-26th) and her challenger, Democrat Carolanne Curry; and 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. 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 reducing spending or increasing taxes in order to balance the state budget, Cafero, an eight-term incumbent and lifelong Norwalk resident, said with the current Democratic majority in the House "we certainly did the latter over the past four years — we've increased taxes over $3 billion and unfortunately we still find ourselves with a deficit."
"That's not because we have a revenue problem, it's because we have a spending problem," said Cafero, who served as Deputy Leader for 10 years prior to becoming House Republican Leader in 2006. "I don't think anyone wants to cut the state's safety net or needed services — but when taxpayers hear about boondoggles like the nine-mile busway from New Britain to Hartford (aka CTfastrak), costing us $650 million; when you hear about checks going out from the state Department of Social Services to people who have been dead for over four years; when you hear about pay raises to the tune of a quarter million dollars to someone in the higher education department, that's the kind of spending that needs to stop."
Tepper, also a resident of Norwalk, said although she has heard Republicans complain "a great deal about the enormous tax increase we've had here in Connecticut — it's actually not the greatest tax increase that we've ever had — if you look at it as a percentage of the gross state product, it's actually about ten percent less than the tax increases we saw from 1989 to 1992."
"I've also heard a great deal [of complaining] about the business tax in Connecticut," Tepper said. "Again, if you use the gross state product as a common denominator to all states, which the Council on State Taxation does... they find that Connecticut is actually not the highest tax state at all."
In his rebuttal Cafero emphasized that when the state budget was approved earlier this year, the legislature "didn't actually cut spending by one nickel — as a matter of fact we increased spending by over $1 billion, and at the same time we increased taxes."
"My opponent seems to think we aren't taxed enough — I say taxes are what is holding back the game," said Cafero, who also works as an attorney with Brown and Rudnick of Hartford.
"I didn't actually say we aren't taxed enough," Tepper countered. "Taxes are always too high for everyone who has to bear them. But taxes really aren't a point of concern for businesses — the prime concern of every business is customers and overhead and health care — taxes comes after you already have the business. Two out of three businesses in Connecticut has failed because they weren't able to get enough customers to have a business at all."
When asked what they would do to reduce the state's energy costs and foster energy independence, Cafero said "there is plenty of room for bipartisan agreement on this topic."
"I sponsored a bill to increase our natural gas production and access for the citizenry here in Connecticut," Cafero said. "In addition I sponsored a bill to take advantage of our fuel cell infrastructure here — as well as our expertise in the area."
"We built the first green airport in the US and we also replaced one quarter of our public transportation fleet with fuel-cell-powered buses — each year for four years — it was a $200 million investment over five years — but unfortunately my good friends on the other side of the aisle did not see it that way [and stopped investment midway]," he said. "Those are the things we can do to make Connecticut more affordable when it comes to its energy costs."
Tepper said she agreed with Cafero but added that the state could be doing more than just looking at alternative energy. She referred to a 2011 New York Times article concerning how the Mount Sinai, NY, school district saved $350,000 in one year "simply through conservation."
"It's the cheapest program we have for energy savings," she said. "I would really push for a program that emphasizes 'don't use it'... that's the cheapest way we can save."
When asked what can be done to keep seniors from leaving the state, given current economic conditions, Cafero said "First of all, the questions I'm hearing from seniors here in New Canaan are the same questions I hear from seniors all over the state: They want to stay where they raised their families, they want to keep their homes, they want to live near their children and grandchildren, and they want to attend the same church or synagogue they've attended for years. But given the current economic climate in Connecticut, I hear so many saying 'I just can't stay here anymore.' That's the saddest thing."
"I agree that property taxes are a a huge factor and that's why we opposed the budget proposed by Gov. Malloy, which actually increased property taxes on everyone by as much as 40 percent," Cafero said. "It increased the income tax, business taxes, estate taxes, gift taxes — all the things that seniors consider when deciding where to live or how long they can stay here in Connecticut. That has to change."
Tepper said one of the major factors affecting property taxes, and thus seniors, in affluent towns like New Canaan, as well as Norwalk, is the state's Education Cost Sharing Formula, which is used for determining the percentage of state funds each town gets for public education. She said currently the formula "is predicated on the perceived wealth of the town... Norwalk for example is perceived as a fairly wealthy town but it's really not, it just has pockets of wealth."
"So we receive, in Norwalk, a fairly small portion of education cost sharing [funds]. I believe that the perceived wealth of the towns should be taken out of the formula, and predicated only on the child — in other words where the child lives and based on their needs."
Cafero agreed and added that new Canaan is a perfect example of how the ECS formula can "put a large burden on property taxes." New Canaan, he said, receives "very little if any funding from the state... yet it is expected to comply with these unfunded mandates which cost the citizens of New Canaan money.
"We [i.e. the Republicans] propose to get rid of those unfunded mandates, especially when the school system is doing as well as it is here in New Canaan," Caferoi said. "Unfortunately my good friends on the other side of the aisle refuse to do that."
Tepper emphasized that if the ECS formula were reformed as she proposes, it would "reflect the needs of the child, and therefore it would be applied equally in a town like New Canaan, in a town like Bridgeport, in a town like Norwalk — it would reflect the needs of the child and not the economic makeup of the town."
When the candidates were asked what steps they would take to spur job growth in the state and encourage economic recovery, Cafero said "first of all we have to get our fiscal house in order."
"The reason that is so important is because businesses and job creators out there are sick of looking over their shoulder in fear of the state saying, yet again, 'you know what, we're in a deficit and we're going to have to hit you up again,'" he said. "That's why we have almost 15,000 business a year closing shop — that's why we have almost 200,000 of our friends and neighbors here in Connecticut unemployed — almost a full percentage point above the national average."
Cafero added that when the state legislature passed Gov. Malloy's bipartisan job creation bill last year, "we should have focused more on small business."
"With that money provided — $20 million — we created 700 jobs," Cafero said. "When the Governor launched his First Five program he picked the winners and the losers and it has cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and we have very few jobs to show for it."
Tepper said she believes Connecticut "has one of the finest eduction systems" and supports the state's recent push to become "a hub for bio-science and biotech," through the Connecticut Innovations program.
"We're in a great position to do so," she said.
"One of the projects that my opponent voted against was the bio-science collaboration program, where they put up $800 million for Jackson Labs to have this center for bio-science and biotech, so we would have people trained for those particular jobs in the 21st century," Tepper said. "And we have the First Five program which apparently [Republican US Senate candidate] Mrs. [Linda] McMahon is applying for..."
In his rebuttal Cafero said he did vote against the Jackson Labs deal — but it was for the right reasons: "You tell me if you think it is a good deal: No money down, the state gave $300 million, $200 million up front and $100 million over ten years; they get to own the property; and all they have to do is create 300 jobs over ten years. You tell me who got the worst end of that deal."
Tepper countered that the 300 jobs that were created through the initiative "will help create other jobs — because they're bringing technology jobs into the area — and the more jobs we create, the more jobs we bring into the area."
In his closing statement Cafero said he and his opponent "clearly have different ideas on how to get things done."
"My Dad, who is 92 years old, God bless him, says all you can do is hope to make a little part of the world better," Cafero said. "My ways are borne in common sense — stuff you learned around the kitchen table with your parents — you know, basic stuff: spend no more than you make and borrow no more than you know you can pay back. I like to bring that kind of common sense and balance to state government. It has been a privilege to do so for the City of Norwalk for many years and it would be an honor and a privilege to do so for New Canaan as well."
Tepper said when she first came to the US from England 44 years ago, she learned about the Mayflower Compact, "which was something they drafted on the Mayflower before they even set foot on the fabled Plymouth Rock."
"They drafted a compact that was for fairness and justice and equality for all," she said. "That is something I believe is a moral and economic imperative. Unless we have that, we don't really have anything."