Answering questions about issues from guns to gay rights, and from tolls to taxes, candidates for the 26th District state Senate seat — incumbent Republican Toni Boucher of Wilton and Democratic challenger Will Haskell of New Canaan — participated in League of Women Voters debate Oct. 2.
The 26th District includes all or part of Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Weston, Westport, New Canaan and Bethel.
A crowd approaching 200 filled the Ridgefield Library’s program room, with folks standing in the back, for the debate featuring six candidates — Boucher and Haskell, plus the candidates from Ridgefield’s two state House of Representative districts.
To start, candidates were asked what voters are looking for in elected officials, and what qualifications the candidates have.
Boucher touted the prospect of Republicans getting control in the state Senate — where the two parties currently each hold the same number of seats, after years of Democrats controlling both houses of the legislature.
“I believe we’re on the cusp of majority. Being the real change the Connecticut economy needs, after Malloy,” Boucher said, taking a shot at the outgoing Democratic governor.
“We don’t need bailouts,” she said. “We don’t need a new casino in Bridgeport.”
Instead, Boucher said, Connecticut needs “to cultivate a pro-business environment.”
Haskell said: “I woke up the morning after Donald Trump’s election and I felt like I had to do something.”
So, he’s challenging Boucher and campaigning hard.
“I’ve knocked on 4,000 doors now,” he said.
With all the problems the state is facing, he said, solutions have to be found, tough tasks taken on.
“Our reaction can’t be to … eliminate the income tax and devastate services,” he said.
Haskell said he’d talked to students who can’t concentrate because they’re worried a gunman will come and shoot up their school.
“This is a moment for moral clarity,” Haskell said.
With the state income tax providing 56% of the state’s revenue, the candidates were asked where they stood on its repeal and how the state might make up lost funds if it were eliminated.
“To say you’re going to eliminate the income tax is going to blow an $11-billion hole in our budget,” said Haskell. “…It’s deficient arithmetic.”
And it would mean increasing other taxes, he said.
Expenses now covered by the state would be passed back to towns. “In Ridgefield, property taxes could increase 26%,” he predicted.
The state would also likely increase its sales tax.
“That’s regressive,” Haskell said. “It’ll hit middle class families the hardest.”
Boucher said Connecticut was better off before it adopted an income tax in 1991.
“Now, Connecticut has people fleeing, and jobs leaving to no-income-tax states — Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas,” Boucher said.
“Not having an income tax is an incredible draw — not just for people, for corporations,” she said.
Elimination the income tax could be balanced not only by raising other taxes but also by reduced state spending, she said.
“You have to cut back, cut costs,” Boucher said.
Candidates were also asked what the legislature should do to move toward longer term solutions to Connecticut’s fiscal challenges.
Haskell said Connecticut had “unfunded liability” for pensions that exceeds $30 billion and has to be faced. He advocated the “legacy obligation trust model” in which the state would put some of its valuable assets — real estate, transportation or health facilities — under the control of an independent professional who could manage them to maximize financial return, free of the political considerations which often hold down the income from state assets. The money, he said, would be dedicated to the pension by prearrangement.
“The state of Connecticut is bad at managing its own assets,” Haskell said. Some debt-plagued governments — he mentioned Detroit — have used the model successfully.
“This is a model that worked,” Haskell said.
Boucher said state is in real trouble as evidenced by things like house values shrinking, and the situation is aggravated by state’s fiscal habits and taxation levels.
“The state of Connecticut is spending too much and borrowing too much,” she said. “… The only way out is to expand the tax base.”
She advocated moving state workers to pension plans that more closely resemble what most private sector workers have: “401Ks, not defined benefit plans,” Boucher said..
This might require a battle with state employee unions.
“We’re going to have to reform collective bargaining,” she said.
“The state employee costs, the fringe benefits, etc. are unsustainable,” she said.
Tough as it may be, she said, the state has to face up to its fiscal problems.
“We’re losing jobs,” Boucher said. “We’re losing our tax base.”
What strategy did candidates have for improving Connecticut’s infrastructure, and would they support tolls?
Haskell said Connecticut has “302 structurally deficient bridges” and “trains slower than they were in the 1950s.”
The state has a lot of truck traffic. “We’re in a geographic hot spot,” he said.
The trucking industry and drivers from neighboring states use Connecticut’s highways. But when it come to paying for highways and their upkeep “we’re not asking them to participate,” Haskell said.
“Connecticut drivers paid $6 million to the state of Massachusetts” through the state’s tolls, he said. And Massachusetts drivers paid nothing to Connecticut.
These days tolls don’t have to mean cars waiting in lines and stopping to pay.
“I support a high-tech tolling solution,” Haskell said. “I don’t see how our legislature thinks Connecticut can afford to leave money on the table.”
Boucher saw why tolls were attractive as a source of revenue to support transportation improvements.
“There is no question our infrastructure has eroded,” she said.
Republicans have worked on the problem.
“We have a detailed plan: ‘Prioritize Progress’,” she said.
“I’m not against tolls,” she said, but she wouldn’t support them “until they reduce the cost of our super-high gas tax.”
Candidates were asked what they’d do keep businesses from leaving the state they way General Electric did, and how they’d attract businesses to the area.
“I’m a businesswoman,” Boucher said. “I know what the thinking is.”
General Electric, she said, was driven out by a “unitary tax” that “basically taxed them for all the goods sold outside Connecticut.”
Once that tax passed, she said “they were leaving.”
Haskell said there was more to General Electric’s departure than taxes.
“G.E. went to Boston, Massachusetts — a place called ‘tax-a-chusetts,’ ” he said.
The key to keeping businesses and jobs in Connecticut is having people in the state who are ready for today’s employment challenges.
“It’s about developing a young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce,” Haskell said.
What about gun control?
“When I began my campaign,” Haskell said, “the first thing I did, I traveled to Hartford and spoke to the March for Our Lives” — the student march following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“I’m challenging someone who said she went too far in regulating guns after Sandy Hook,” Haskell added. “I believe we haven’t gone far enough.”
“Yes, let’s have a discussion about mental health and school security,” he said. “Let’s also talk about … guns.”
Boucher described her work to strengthen Connecticut’s gun laws after the school shooting in Newtown.
“After Sandy Hook, I was one of three state senators who helped craft the gun bill,” she said.
“… I took a long time and it was very difficult, but we put together a bill that is now a model for the country.”
She added, “I voted for the restraining order bill, the bump stock bill … we do need to talk about storage laws.”
Candidates were asked their “stance on protecting LGBTQ rights.”
“I have really been proud of some of the landmark legislation I’ve been part of,” Boucher said.
“… I helped write the gay marriage amendment in the Senate, after voting against the ‘civil unions’ that the gay community opposed,” she said.
“These are our friends and neighbors,” she added.
Boucher said her own extended family made a point not to exclude members based on sexual orientation.
“If they were gay, they were fully a part of our family,” she said, “and we were proud of them.”
Candidates were asked if they supported increasing Connecticut’s minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, and to what level?
Haskell said someone working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at Connecticut’s minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would have an income of $21,000 a year.
“It’s not enough,” he said.
The minimum wage should be raised, he said, but not all at once.
“Of course, we need to do it incrementally, so small businesses aren’t blind-sided,” he said.
Boucher disagreed, saying the state is already losing businesses.
“We have a negative GDP,” she said. “This has to be the worst time to consider something like this,” Boucher said.
She insisted she isn’t unsympathetic to those at the bottom of the income scale.
“My family was a minimum wage family,” she said. “My father worked three minimum wage jobs.”
Her father’s goal was to send his children to college.
“Education is what closes the income gap,” Boucher said.
She doesn’t think the government should be dictating wages increases.
“The private sector, the business sector, should have the liberty of deciding what they could afford,” Boucher said.
Do the candidates think Connecticut should join the 34 states that allow some form of “early voting”?
“We desperately need early voting in Connecticut,” Haskell said. “… God forbid you’re a single parent who can’t get to the polls that day.”
He added, “In other states where they offer early voting, participation in voting goes up, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
Boucher was skeptical.
“So much happens and so much is known at the last minute,” she said. “… I think early voting isn’t a good idea,” she said.
“I’m optimistic about Connecticut’s future,” said Haskell, adding that he can envision a state with “faster trains, safer roads.”
“Connecticut can do better, and we all have a role to play,” he said.
He’s knocked on 4,000 doors — but the campaign ”is not about me,” he said.
“This November we’re going to show up, and we’re going to break the tie in the state Senate.”
Boucher spoke of the same situation, from a different perspective.
”We have a tie, 18-18, in the state Senate,” she said, that ended “40 years of a one-party legislature.”
If Republicans make more gains, she said, they can move state forward — and reduce taxes.
“We need to overhaul taxes to be better for businesses and their employees,” Boucher said.
“… We need to eliminate the death tax and the gift tax.”