Economic issues — the state income tax, corporations leaving Connecticut, a $15 minimum wage — joined questions about concerns, like gay rights and early voting, at the League of Women Voters’ debate on Oct. 2.
A crowd approaching 200 filled the Ridgefield Library’s program room, with folks standing the back for the debate featuring six candidates from three local legislative races.
The evening provided a live face-off between incumbent Republican John Frey and Democratic challenger Aimee Berger-Girvalo, competitors in the state House of Representatives’ 111th District, which comprises nearly all of Ridgefield — everything south of George Washington Highway.
Also, in the debate were candidates for the 138th House District — Ridgefield north of George Washington Highway, plus parts of Danbury and New Fairfield — and also the state Senate’s 26th District, which includes all or part of Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Weston, Westport, New Canaan and Bethel.
Here’s a glimpse at answers that the candidates for the 111th District offered. A video of the debate is available on the League of Women Voters YouTube channel.
To start, candidates were asked what voters are looking for in elected officials, and how they matched that.
Berger-Girvalo said she offers voters a fresh voice on concerns from gun regulation to senior citizens’ concerns to women’s issues — “paid family leave” and “the right to choose” — and a new approach to revitalizing Connecticut’s economy.
“You want to bring businesses and kids back to this state,” Berger-Girvalo said.
“… Partisanship and politics in Hartford have not produced solutions for our families.”
Frey, a 20-year incumbent, said: “I am an incredibly lucky guy: my parents chose RIdgefield.” He’s lived here “52 of my 55 years,” he said.
His father passed away when Frey was six. “I was raised by a single mother,” he said — and many good people in town helped her.
“I was so lucky people in town looked after me,” Frey said.
He grew up to start his own real estate business with former First Selectman Lou Fossi — a Democrat — as his partner.
To solve problems, the state must face up to its “astronomical debt,” Frey said.
“We can do things better,” he said. “We can and we must improve our state.”
Candidates were asked about repeal of the state income tax, which provided 56% of the state’s revenue, and how they’d make up for lost funds if it is eliminated.
Berger-Girvalo said eliminating the income tax would require big increases elsewhere — “sales and property taxes” — to make up the revenue.
“The income tax cannot be lost,” she said. “… To say we can afford to lose 56% of what comes into our state is disrespectful — and it’s just bad math.”
Frey said he knows the problem.
“I’ve been on a finance committee for 20 years,” he said.
The income tax produces “$10 and half billion out of a $20 billion state budget,” Frey said — a lot of revenue to lose.
“It could be impossible to say what would stay and what’s going away,” Frey said.
Still, Frey liked the concept.
“Ten and half billion is not going away overnight,” he said, “still, it’s laudable to have a goal of reducing the income tax.”
What can the legislature do to move toward longer term solutions to Connecticut’s fiscal challenges?
“Long-term solutions are the key idea here,” said Berger-Girvalo. “We didn’t get into the desperate fiscal situation in an eight-year period and it didn’t happen under one party.”
Spending reductions shouldn’t be indiscriminate: “We can’t just cut seniors,” she said.
Finding revenue doesn’t just mean raising taxes, she argued.
“We have assets in Hartford we could be selling off,” Berger-Girvalo said. “There are vacant properties we could be selling.”
She added that problems, like underfunded pensions, can’t be solved “if we keep cutting, and we keep pushing it away.”
She suggested studying how other governments have solved similar problems and commit to an approach. “It is fixable over time,” Berger-Girvalo said. “… We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s been done elsewhere.”
Frey said the state needed to take on tough issues like “health-care benefits” and state employee pensions.
“If you’re a state trooper,” he said, “your pension is based on your highest three years of earned income” — including overtime — rather than on a base salary, he said, and that has to change.
Frey, too, talked of selling state property. “There’s some 4,000 state buildings we can put back on the tax rolls,” he said.
And he wants the state workforce cut.
“There are too many middle managers in the state,” Frey said.
What strategy did candidates have for improving Connecticut’s infrastructure, and would they support tolls?
“We’re focusing on the 300 failing bridges we have in Connecticut,” Frey said.
But tolls aren’t the answer.
“I’m philosophically against any toll,” he said.
Plans he’s seen for tolls make little sense, he said — one showed 12 tolls between Danbury and Hartford on Interstate 84.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
Frey also was skeptical of talk about putting money from tolls in a “lock box” dedicated only to transportation.
“The lock box is B.S.,” Frey said. “There’s going to be money that falls off the table.”
Berger-Girvalo said tolls shouldn’t be ruled out — they’d get in-state and out-of-state drivers to share the cost of maintaining roads.
“Those against tolls are talking as if there’s a plan in place,” she said. “… The idea of having fresh ideas and voices in Hartford is so we can come up with better plans.”
With high-tech tolls, drivers can just go through and are billed — meaning charges could be adjusted. “Commuters can pay less,” she said. “Students and seniors can pay less.”
How would candidates keep businesses from leaving the state as General Electric did, and attract new businesses to Connecticut?
After a constituent warned that General Electric might leave Connecticut, Frey said he told Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy — arguing higher business taxes would be counterproductive.
“I called Malloy,” he said.
Frey talked to other corporations, including Boehringer Ingelheim.
“They were all concerned about this tax increase,” Frey said.
The tax hikes went through, and G.E. moved, he said.
Berger-Girvalo said education can create a workforce attractive businesses.
“We do need to attract young people to this state,” she said.
“Our kids want to go to competitive colleges,” she said. “… When our kids do get out of college, our kids are saddled with unbelievable debt.”
Stronger state schools could help keep tomorrow’s workforce in Connecticut.
“We need a more robust state college system,” Berger-Girvalo said.
What about gun laws?
Berger-Girvalo said gun regulation needs to keep up with the technological change constantly finding ways around them.
“The idea of 3-D printed guns, the fact that we are chasing technology with the laws,” she said.
“… We should be anticipating technology and understand that there’s always going to be someone trying to develop something else.”
She favors laws on safe storage of guns, and banning “ghost guns” that cannot be traced.
Frey recalled personal connections to the Sandy Hook School shooting that made him support gun regulation.
He had watched his twin nieces singing in the Sandy Hook School concert the night before the shooting. He nephew was there as well. “Five kids in his kindergarten class perished that day,” Frey said.
His nieces are dealing with “PTSD — post traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
His nephew “doesn’t sound the same as he used to” — his once-open attitude toward life seemingly changed.
“I voted for the bill after Sandy Hook,” Frey said of Connecticut’s major gun law.
More recently, he said, “I was an introducer of the bill on ghost guns.”
Candidates were asked their “stance on protecting LGBTQ rights.”
“I’m all for protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community,” Berger-Girvalo said.
“… We do have to take this just a little bit further,” she added. “There are swastikas going up in this community — these are hate crimes.”
Beyond affirming minority communities’ rights, she said, there’s a need to stop the spread of hate and prejudice.
“We really have to suppress that kind of behavior.”
“There are some votes you evolve on,” Frey said.
Early in his 20 years in the legislature, some gays rights issues came up that he did not vote for.
“I voted against that and I wish I didn’t,” he said.
He’d voted for civil unions — which the gay community regarded as a watered down alternative to gay marriage.
“I do repent voting for civil unions,” he said.
Over the years, Frey said, his outlook had broadened.
“When we finally codified same-sex marriage, I voted for it,” Frey said.
His evolution goes beyond politics.
“I’ve performed, as a justice of the peace, some 20 same-sex marriages,” Frey said.
Do candidates support increasing Connecticut’s minimum wage, now $10.10 an hour, and to what level?
“Yes,” said Berger-Girvalo, “I absolutely support minimum wage — $15 per hour is the minimum … It’s not a business killer,” she added.
Frey opposed a minimum wage increase.
“Connecticut already has the tenth highest minimum wage in the nation,” he said.
“If we were to go up to $15, we’d have a very direct negative impact on businesses,” he said, “especially small businesses.”
He added, “I have supported in the past a cost of living allowance for those making minimum wage.”
Around here, minimum wage workers generally aren’t adults with families, but young people with summer or after school jobs, Frey said.
He said he spoken with local employers who hire young people, and learned “how devastating it would be for their summer hiring” if the minimum wage increased.
“It’s not in the best interests of the state to go down this path at the moment,” Frey said.
Should Connecticut join the 34 states where “early voting” is allowed?
“Absolutely,” said Berger-Girvalo. “… We need to make sure everybody has ever opportunity to get out there and vote.”
“I think, early voting — we need to tread very carefully on,” said Frey.
He recalled all the last presidential election, with all the late-breaking news about the candidates.
“If someone had voted two weeks prior, they might have changed their mind,” he said.
“There’s so much more to being a legislator” than just voting when the legislature is in session, Frey said in his closing statement.
“Off session, I average five contacts a day,” he said.
He recalled working to get Danbury Hospital approved to provide full cardiac care.
“That didn’t take legislation,” he said, “that took persuasion.”
He added, “Whether there’s a Republican or Democratic governor, good times or bad, I’ve been able to get things done for Ridgefield.”
Berger-Girvalo said the state has challenges it must face.
“It didn’t start eight years ago,” (when Democrats took the governorship) she said, and the problems need to be addressed now.
“We can’t wait another 20 years,” she said.
“You deserve an advocate for women, families and children,” Berger-Girvalo told voters.
She said she’d address issues like clean water and the opioid crisis.
“I’ll represent you and not just my party,” Berger-Girvalo said.
She ended with an assertion of commitment.
“I’m not making this my job. I’m not making this my career,” she said. “I’m making this my mission.”