State economy, healthcare, opiates big topics at Democratic forum

From left to right: First Selectman Rudy Marconi, Katherine McGerald, and Aimee Berger-Girvalo, the Democratic nominee to represent Ridgefield’s 111th district in the state House of Representatives. — Peter Yankowski photo

How many issues facing Connecticut can you talk about in 90 minutes? Quite a few, it turns out.

A forum on the future of the state’s legislative was hosted by the Democratic Town Committee earlier this month, and covered a range of topics from healthcare to pension costs.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Aimee Berger-Girvalo, the Democratic nominee to represent Ridgefield’s 111th district in the state House of Representatives, fielded anonymous questions from an audience of around 40 townspeople in the conference room beneath town hall.

The discussion was moderated by Katherine McGerald, a former Ridgefield Board of Education member and current member of the Ridgefield League of Women Voters.

State Rep. John Frey, the incumbent who Berger-Girvalo will face in November, was also in attendance.

Pensions

While the event was nominally focused on Connecticut’s legislative future, most of the questions revolved around the state of the economy, and how to handle the cost of pensions promised years ago to teachers and other public-sector employees.

Berger-Girvalo said those costs would require new negotiations to ensure the state can continue to pay its bills.

“The shortest answer is that pensions… we can’t hold where we are,” she said.

According to Marconi, one proposal from the Governor last year would have seen local municipalities shoulder about 30% of the statewide cost for the pensions. That would have meant a bill of about $4 million for Ridgefield, he said.

“That Ridgefield doesn’t get a say in that… seems absurd to me,” said Berger-Girvalo

It was one of several issues Marconi and Berger-Girvalo said should be met with stronger communication between town officials and state lawmakers.

Marconi suggested that lately, that communication has been a one way street, as Hartford expects local officials to fall in line.

“There is an attitude in Hartford that the local elected officials need to be told what to do.. that doesn’t look good to me,” he said.

Funding schools

According to Marconi, the biggest issues Hartford and Ridgefield could benefit from talking about are education and the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“Being in Fairfield County is a blessing, but it’s also a curse,” Marconi said. “The attitude in the state is that Fairfield County gets too much money.” Overlap between the town and its lawmakers in the capitol would improve how the town’s concerns “get conveyed back to Hartford,” he said.

Transportation

Marconi and Berger-Girvalo both made a case for additional tolls on state highways.

“It’s probably no surprise that I am for tolls,” said Berger-Girvalo, adding that the state loses money to Massachusetts every year on interstate travel.

Marconi said that improvements to electric cars every year mean the state’s income from the gas tax will decline in the future. While other states on the eastern seaboard can rely on tolls, Connecticut is not. “If you drive to Florida you’ll see, we are missing the boat,” he said.

Berger-Girvalo said that transportation infrastructure is also tied in with other developments and improvements — including revitalizing the area around Branchville train station, and attracting new families to move to the area.

Attracting new young people to town is difficult, however, when a train from Branchville to Stamford takes 45 minutes, which Berger-Girvalo said she recently timed. “I could have gotten there faster on my bicycle,” she said. “It all has to work together.”

Healthcare and opiates

The opiate crisis, and concerns over the future of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — were also on residents minds.

Berger-Girvalo suggested the issues were linked by a lack of preventative care, due to the high costs for healthcare. She also suggested the state should have more regulatory power to rein in the cost of prescription medications. “There is very very little oversight at the state level… that’s something we have to blow wide open,” she said.

“That’s a bleeding that’s gotta stop. It’s gotta stop right away,” she later added, responding to a similar question.

But Marconi chose a slightly different track on the opiate crisis. He argued that a plan to file a lawsuit against major manufacturers of opiate pain-relievers — which have been linked to growing rates of opiate addiction, including black market heroin — would not let money trickle down to the people who need it the most fast enough.

Instead he suggested it might be time to “make the deal with the devil” and work with pharmaceutical companies to prevent addiction in the first place. He noted that Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures OxyContin, one of the leading opiate painkillers, has recently begun giving money to start an addiction-prevention program in schools.

During a “lightning round” of questioning one audience member asked if either of them would support an expanded state healthcare program, such as the state’s SustiNet plan, or Medicare for all.

Both Marconi and Berger-Girvalo said they would.

“Everyone should have health care. Period. End of story,” Berger-Girvalo told the room, which erupted in applause. “Pre-existing conditions should not be a phrase that we use anymore.”

“Agreed. How’s that for lightning?” said Marconi.

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