Taxes and spending, jobs, school reform, and the state’s affordable housing law were among the topics discussed by 111th District State Rep. John Frey and his challenger, Jeff Bonistalli, at the League of Women Voters’ Sept. 28 candidates’ forum at Founders Hall.
Candidates were asked for an analysis of the state’s fiscal situation, and how it could be improved.
“It’s somewhat doom and gloom with our state budget in Hartford,” said Mr. Frey, a Republican who has served 14 years in the legislature and is a minority whip in the state House of Representatives.
Mr. Frey had supported the Republican ‘no tax increase’ alternative budget. But he conceded that the Democratic governor had a lot of fiscal problems handed to him when he took office in 2011
“Governor Malloy, I’d agree he inherited a situation,” Mr. Frey said.
The governor talked of a balanced approach, combining tax increases, spending restraint, and union concession to close a $3 billion state budget deficit.
“Governor Malloy came in and said he was going to put through a budget of shared sacrifice,” Mr. Frey said.
What the governor and Democratic-controlled legislature pushed through was “a $1.8-billion tax increase per year,” Mr. Frey said. “What I find most reprehensible, some of those tax increases were retroactive.”
Mr. Frey found the governor’s effort to get union concessions wanting.
“He negotiated, supposedly, $1 billion from the unions,” Mr. Frey said. “That included $200 million from the ‘employee suggestion box’ ” that, it should have been obvious, wouldn’t amount to much…
“That resulted in zero savings,” Mr. Frey said.
Mr. Bonistalli, a Democrat who serves on the town’s Youth Commission and Board of Assessment Appeals, proposed a less political approach.
“You hear about the alternative budget and the Democratic budget,” he said.
“I think in order to get an effective budget, there needs to be a bi-partisan budget where both parties can take what they think is best, and combine it,” Mr. Bonistalli said. “What’s best for Connecticut.”
He said it’s important to keep young people in the state to provide the customers and employees businesses need.
“That starts with transportation and housing,” he said.
Both candidates spoke of improving the business climate to keep jobs in the state.
“Government doesn’t create jobs,” Mr. Frey said.
As an example of government’s making Connecticut unfriendly to business, he said Governor Malloy had pushed through a policy requiring companies with 50 or more employees to give mandatory paid sick leave.
He recalled an event where Florida’s governor was bragging about bringing his state 85,000 jobs. He’d offered thanks to Connecticut and some other states the employers had left.
When he asked later about the mention of Connecticut, the Florida governor said to him, “What the F were you guys thinking with mandatory sick leave?” Mr. Frey said.
That the governor of Florida had such detailed knowledge of Connecticut policy, Mr. Frey said, meant he had been using it in woo the state’s businesses to Florida.
“We need to have a more business-friendly environment,” Mr. Frey said.
Mr. Bonistalli said the state needs a climate friendly to businesses and workers.
“It’s imperative that we hold the line on taxes,” he said. “We need to have a state where employees can afford to live here … We need to look at transit-oriented development, which will attract young people to the state and in turn help attract businesses.”
He later added, “One of the biggest issues in reducing the tax burden is growing the tax base. We need to bring young people back.”
Affordable housing law
The candidates were asked about state’s affordable housing law 8-30-g, which allows developers to circumvent local zoning rules if they put forward projects where 30% of the units “affordable” by state standards.
“It’s lousy,” Mr. Frey said. “It takes local control away from our communities.”
He said the law had been adopted years ago, before he was in the legislature. “Urban minority legislators” backed it as a way to give their constituents’ children access to the educational opportunities that suburban children have.
The Democratic majority that controls the legislature’s committees and agenda has resisted attempts by suburban legislators to change the law.
“We’ve tried,” Mr. Frey said. “They won’t raise any of our bills.”
Most recently he’d proposed increasing the “financial disclosure” required of developers, and adding protections for historic districts.
All attempts to change or improve the law have been resisted by the Democrats.
“My big concern is we could have a big development on Main Street five to 10 stories tall,” Mr. Frey said.
Mr. Bonistalli agreed that the law needed to be modified, with things like protections for historic districts.
But as a young person he’d seen many friends move away, and understood that the affordable housing law also serves a purpose.
“The need definitely exists,” he said. “The question is how do we go about changing 8-30g so it better suits municipalities like Ridgefield.”
Protecting historic districts is “very, very important,” Mr. Bonistalli agreed. “I’d restrict these developments in historic districts. Also, aesthetic requirements for these developments, so they look nice.”
When candidates were asked what laws they’d like to introduce, Mr. Bonistalli returned to affordable housing, and said he’d propose changes to 8-30g.
He proposed changing the law in two ways to better serve its intent.
Mr. Bonistalli said that the 30% minimum units should be raised so 40% or 50% of units in the project would have to be “affordable” to be exempted from zoning.
The law currently requires that those set-aside units remain affordable a minimum of 30 years — after that rents could revert to market rate.
He thought the set aside requirement — and the below-market rents — should continue on, without an expiration date.
Mr. Frey said he’d propose a law to ease Connecticut seniors’ tax burden. “Exempt Social Security from the state income tax,” he said.
“Barrons recently came out with a ranking of states. It ranked Connecticut the worst state to retire in,” he said.
No-excuse absentee voting
The candidates were asked if they would support “no excuse absentee voting.” This would allow voters to use absentee ballots if they found it more convenient — as opposed to only if they were out the district on election day.
“I would support this,” Mr. Bonistalli said.
In “today’s economic climate,” he said, families are scrambling to make ends meet, working all kinds of hours.
“Who knows what someone’s day-to-day life may be?” he said.
He also thought it could make voting easier for people with physical disabilities.
The incumbent agreed.
“I proposed a bill seven years ago to do just that,” Mr. Frey said.
Easy absentee voting could help “caregivers” who may be in town, but find hard to get away to vote, he said.
“I have supported ‘no excuse absentee balloting.’ I think it should be the law of the land.”
An “ethical choice” was posed to the candidates: What if their constituents strongly favored one side of an issue, but their conscience and their own sense of what would be best for Ridgefield and the state favored the other side?
“If it’s a matter of conscience, I’d vote my conscience,” Mr. Frey said.
In reality, he added, constituents’ feelings on specific bills were rarely that apparent.
“It’s very hard to gauge,” he said. “If five or six people contact me on one particular issue, that’s a lot and it gets my attention.”
Mr. Bonistalli said he’d try to listen to constituents.
“I would be one person serving in the House. If there was a super, super majority and they voiced that — that would have a lot of weight,” he said. “I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing my constituents.”
Teenage drinking, parties
The candidates were asked about “social hosting” — adults who serve alcohol to minors, or have parities in their homes where underage drinking takes place.
Mr. Bonistalli said he was troubled by teen drinking and substance abuse, and cited his experience in “youth leadership roles” working directly with young people at the Boys and Girls Club and at The Barn youth center, and as a “league creator” who had expended organized basketball to more young people.
He’d like to “encourage physical fitness and sports in our schools” to help students fight pressure to drink. “Positive self-image reinforces the ability to resist,” he said.
Mr. Frey recalled how in November he’d met with the Ridgefield Coalition Against Substance Abuse at the request of First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Police Chief John Roche, to work on toughening laws against social hosting.
He’d pushed the resulting bill though the legislature.
“Rudy, John and myself, we all testified together. Here you had a Republican, a Democrat and a police chief all testifying together,” he said. “We passed the bill.”
New bills rarely make it through committee and get passed the first year they’re put forward, he said.
It was before the law was on the books, but the need for it was demonstrated on New Year’s Eve, he said, when an adult had been charged after a teen drinking party at home “about a third of a mile from the tragedy that took place on graduation night, 1983,” Mr. Frey said.
“We’ve added some teeth to the social hosting bills. They go into affect Oct. 1,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll make a difference.”
The candidates were asked about education reforms pushed by the governor passed the legislature last session with bi-partisan support.
“Governor Malloy proposed a very bold bill on education,” Mr. Frey said.
The Ridgefield Board of Education wrote him, unanimously supporting the reforms, Mr. Frey said.
But the bill had been modified to get broader support — by addressing concerns raised by teachers unions.
“What passed was greatly watered-down,” Mr. Frey said. “It didn’t touch teacher tenure at all.”
Expect more on education.
“It will no doubt be a top priority going into the long session — which is should be,” Mr. Frey said.
Mr. Bonistalli said education was the reason his parents had moved to Ridgefield.
He outlined what he sees as vital to education: “classroom size, small; quality teachers; and parental participation,” Mr. Bonistalli said.
He expressed concern that reform efforts could over-emphasize testing.
“It’s not healthy for students and kids to be taught to the test,” he said. “It creates stress.”
A potential solution to over-testing in already high-performing schools could be “an opt-out system” that would take into account things like schools’ drop out rates and past test scores.
He agreed more education reform is needed.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We still have to keep working.”