Guns, taxes, health care: Ridgefield candidates share stands
Staking out the borders of policy differences on issues like taxes, police accountability and guns, candidates seeking to be Ridgefield’s voice in Hartford agreed on many major themes such as support for schools, zoning and local control.
They aired their differences and agreements at the League of Women Voters candidates forum on Sunday, Oct. 4.
“We need to understand you’re not going to rebuild an economy by paying poverty level wages,” said Aimee Berger-Girvalo.
“Taxes have increased on businesses, on small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Bob Hebert. “We’re driving people out of the state.”
With longtime State Rep. John Frey retiring, Republican Hebert and Democrat Berger-Girvalo are running for the 111th District seat in the state House of Representatives. The 111th covers nearly all of Ridgefield, the entire townsuth of George Washington Highway and Canterbury Lane in Ridgebury.
Joining them at the League forum was State Rep. Kenneth Gucker, a Democrat whose 138th District includes a thin slice of Ridgefield north of George Washington Highway and Canterbury Lane , as well as a swath of Danbury and New Fairfield. Gucker’s Repbulican challenger, Emile Buzaid Jr., didn’t take part, citing a prior commitment, according to the League.
Here’s a substantial part of the House candidates’ discussion, prompted by a series of questions — many submitted by some of the 200 voters who listened to the forum on Zoom.
Combined, Connecticut state and local government take 12.6 percent of personal income. Would you support cutting state income tax or the corporate tax rate, and if so where would you find the revenue to do that?
“We cannot put families and small businesses in the same category as corporations,” Berger-Girvalo said. “Tax rates need to reflect that what some families are bringing in is not the same as what other families are bringing in...
Tax policy discussion should not be dominated by corporations, she said.
“Every single person deserves a voice,” she said.
Hebert offered a different perspective.
“I’m going to come at this as a business owner,” Hebert said. “... I will tell you businesses and corporations and local businesses — they are people.”
He urged listeners to “take a look at what’s happening in our state” concerning taxes.
“We lost GE. We lost many other businesses. I’ve seen in Ridgefield a number of small businesses that have moved to other states,” Hebert said.
“What I do subscribe to is a thoughtful policy of reducing taxes for both businesses and individuals and doing it over a time, and bringing businesses back,” Hebert said. “We bring business back, we’ll lift everyone up.”
Gucker didn’t buy Hebert’s point on General Electric’s move.
“The GE argument — GE did not leave because of our taxes,” he said. “GE got a sweethart deal from Massachusetts.”
The job losses from GE’s move were largely imaginary, he said.
“All those workers that lost their positions went to work for another company under their umbrella in Fairfield, Connecticut,” Gucker said.
He saw some positive economic signs.
“More people are moving into Connecticut than moving out,” Gucker said. “…Amazon just moved into Danbury, other corporations are moving in.”
He added, “Connecticut has a golden opportunity to go forward in this new environment.”
Should the state support school regionalization as a cost saving measure?
“No, I would not support any effort whatsoever to regionalize our schools,” said Hebert.
“By regionalizing schools that’s going to give other communities an opportunity to grab onto Ridgefield taxpayers’ money,” he said. “ ...We spend over $100 million a year... People move to Ridgefield for the school system.
“I think there are other ways we can help build up and support the other school systems with our income tax money,” he said.
Berger-Girvalo said her position on the issue had been misrepresented “based solely on my being a Democrat” on various social media platforms.
“I do not support regionalization,” Berger-Girvaloo said. “it is not appropriate nor is it applicable in our state.
“Municipalities do need to maintain local control,” she said.
“I do support cost sharing. Why aren’t we sharing the cost of administration? Why aren’t we sharing the cost of health care… Imagine if every public school teacher, every custodian was on the same health plan...
“As a mom here in Ridgefield, of course I don’t want my kids on buses for an hour,” she said. “...It’s not appropriate. It’s not healthy.”
“If we can share costs of buying as far as books, computners, we should look into that aspect,” he said.
“Cost sharing? Absolutely,” he said. “Regionalization as far as busing? No.”
The LGBTQ community currently has legal problems concerning accessibility of healthcare and well as transgender students’ right to participate in sports. Do you support these laws or should they be repealed?
“If we’re talking about supporting protections for any human being, and it falls under the issue of equality, of course I support those protections,” said Berger-Girvalo.
“As far as marriage equality I’d oppose any repeal,” she said.
Hebert said “liberty, life, dignity and respect for all people” were his values.
“I believe every person has a right to be treated with dignity,” he said. “They should have the right to be who they want to be without judgment...
He didn’t take a position on the state laws protecting LGBTQ individuals that were mentioned in the question, however.
“I’d have to look at those bills to see — or those laws — to see the details of them before I could respond to repealing.”
Gucker echoed incumbent Democratic State Senator Will Haskell, who’d said “85 percent of LGBTQ students have been the targets of a homophobic remarks in their schools,” and argued strenuously for protecting their rights.
“It’s time to recognize in the 21st century, families don’t all look the same,” Haskell said.
“I agree with everything Will said,” was Gucker’s position.
If actions are taken to Limit the Affordable Care Act, what should Connecticut do to stop insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions?
“Connecticut looked at what was going on in Washington, stepped up, and codified a lot of the ACA to be sure we don’t go back,” Gucker said.
When people buy insurance “we need to ensure that pre-existing conditions are not taken into effect,” Gucker said.
“We’ve gone so far, and we’re looking to go backward — why? Because of the profit margins,” Gucker said.
Hebert echoed state senatorial candidate Kim Healy’s position, which was that the protection of people with pre-existing conditions should be maintained, but the Affordable Care Act had pushed up the cost of insurance for some people.
“Pre-existing conditions, we want to make sure we keep that included,” Hebert said. “Access to health care for everyone is obviously very important.”
Berger Girvalo was adamant.
“Of course we cannot deny coverage for pre-existing conditions!” she said.
“That’s a concern being raised on a very regular basis, as I talk to voters. I can ensure I would never support that,” she said.
“Families with health insurance don’t go to see their doctors because they can’t pay the premiums and copays,” she said.
“We have to provide some sort of public option.”
Connecticut has a reproductive rights law based on Roe v. Wade. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, should Connecticut law be changed in any way?
“This is not going to be an issue that we’re going to be voting on,” Hebert said. “This is enshrined in the Connecticut State Constitution. It’s not going to be an issue that we’re going to be voting on. I think we should be talking more about the issues that are going to affect us right here in town.”
Hebert then said, “I would like to add what Clinton said: Abortion should be safe, legal and rare. It has become an industry that’s being funded with taxpayer money right now.”
Berger-Girvalo offered a different perspective.
“I think it’s absurd to think this will not be a big issue,” she said.
“Every person needs to be able to decide for herself if and when and with whom she wants to start a family.
“Anti-abortion laws, they threaten the fundamental equality of women,” Berger-Girvalo said. “This is not just a matter of choice it’s also a matter of the opportunities women have, the ability to make these decisions themselves, and they should be afforded that.”
She added that women’s equality involved more than abortion law.
“We definitely have to look at child care and health care when we look at this,” Berger-Girvalos said.
Gucker said he had been endorsed by Planned Parenthood.
“I don’t think we should overturn anything with Roe v Wade,” he said.
“We have to talk about education. They have the tools they need,” he said of women looking for options.
In this regard he was critical of “crisis centers” for pregnant women.
“These crisis centers that put out misinformation” to “women at their most vulnerable time,” he said. “They just convince them ‘No no, you need to go down this certain road...’
“These crisis centers, they need to go,” Gucker said. “Keep family planning safe.”
Hebert used some of the rebuttal time candidates were allowed to address “confusion and misrepresentation” about his position.
“I’m not taking this issue lightly at all,” Hebert said. “We have to understand that this has already been codified into state law. This is a nice discussion to have —this is not something we’re going to have any votes on.”
If elected what would you do to fight rising greenhouse gas emissions in Connecticut and to protect Connecticut’s natural resources and environment?
“We have to be much more proactive. This is a dire situation at this point,” said Berger-Girvalos.
“We can go further. We can incentivize electric and hybrid car ownership through taxes. We can bring renewable environmental businesses into the state, so we’ve got a potential for wind and solar companies to come.
“Look at Massachusetts, they’ve been very aggressive in regulations to mitigate greenhouse emissions.”
Massachusetts also initiated a program “that helped cities and towns to access what they need to reduce their energy consumption and increase renewable energy access as well,” she said. “...These are things we could and should be doing.”
Hebert described environmental efforts the town had already launched.
“As a selectman I’m very proud of the work Ridgefield has accomplished on our environment,” he said.
“Just recently as a Board of Selectmen we approved acquisition of additional open space through our Conservation Commission. We have a very active Conservation Commission. We have a very strong wetlands protection board...
“Over the last several years we’ve put solar panels on all of our schools,” he said.
“We’re doing a lot and there’s certainly much more that needs to be done.
“We currently have two electric vehicle chargers in town, and our ECDC (Economic and Community Development Commission) are looking at that, starting to add more EV charging stations in town.
“Again, very proud of the work Ridgefield has done,” Hebert said, “and I’m sure we’ll continue to do more work as we move forward.”
Gucker said “one of things I’m most proud of” is working on the legislature’s environment committee, working on “runoff issues” and protecting “open space.”
He highlighted state efforts to build windmills in Long Island Sound, advocating for a “gravity-based system” in which the windmills are anchored by a sand-filled base that is environmentally friendly, and allows the windmills to be brought to shore for work.
“If they need repair, you pump the sand back out and bring them back in,” he said.
How should the legislature address the lack of affordable housing in many municipalities including Ridgefield that is the result of exclusionary zoning and land use policies? And do you favor the continutation of 8-30g or would you modify it?
Hebert questioned the threshold of requiring 10 percent of housing units in a town qualify as affordable by state standards, in order be exempt from 8-30g, which allows affordable housing projects to ignore many local zoning rules.
“The 10 percent minimum that we’re required to achieve in terms of affordable units ... Ridgefield will never be able to accomplish that,” Hebert said.
“Ridgefield has done a very good job,” he added. “We have a wide range of housing. The only problem we have is not all of that housing that would qualify is deed restricted.”
Lifting the “deed restriction” requirement would allow much more moderate Ridgefield housing to qualify for the 10% threshold at which 8-30g kicks in, he suggested.
“We need to keep zoning local. Ridgefield has done a very good job,” Hebert said.
Aimee Berger-Girvalo also thought 8-30g had problems, saying, “8-30g has done a great job of serving builders — it serves big builders, developers and real estate investors.”
“It has not helped to bring those who work in our community — it has not given them the ability to live here, so our teachers, our police officers, our fire department, they can be here...
“Yes, local control must remain,” Berger-Girvalo said.
Gucker also had concerns about 8-30g.
“The problem I have with that is it’s still favors the developer,” he said.
Under 8-30g, a development can ignore most zoning regulations if 30 percent of its units qualify as “affordable” and the other 70 percent can be rented or sold without restrictions.
“Let say they build 100 units,” Gucker said. “They’ry making the money selling the other units at high over market rates.”
He proposed that a larger percentage of the units in 8-30g projects be required to be affordable.
“Make these builders and developers help us solve that problem,” Gucker said.
“We need more affordable housing.”
The minimum wage is Connecticut just increased from $11 to $12 (and will go to $15 in the coming years). Studies show supporting a family of four in Connecticut would need a wage of $28 an hour. Do you support a living wage?
“I will keep an open mind and look at any and all appropriate legislation,” Hebert said. “However I don’t know that supporting a living wage is necessarily the best way to go. I think what we do need to do is fix our economy, bring our jobs back.”
Minimum wage increases have costs “when you look at the impact on small businesses and communities,” Hebert said.
Ridgefield’s budget had been affected by the need to pay more to workers — and not only those at the very bottom of the wage scale, he said.
“You increase the minimum wage then the people just above that, then they expect increases,” Hebert said.
Berger-Girvalo sounded more sympathetic to minimum wage increases.
“We’re talking about a living wage, we’re talking about people that are employees,” she said.
“Underpaying people, it creates more poverty — this is a fact,” Berger Girvalo said. “We need to be able to then support those who aren’t making a living wage...
“If our tax base expands because we are paying a living wage, we have more tax base from which to draw,” she said.
“The idea than a $28 living wage would bankrupt us doesn’t look at the big picture,” she said.
If people were paid enough to support their families, they wouldn’t need government support programs.
“I’m not sure who could look anybody in in the eye and say you work 40 hours a week, but you don’t deserve a living wage for that,” Berger-Girvalo said.
Gucker pointed to workers at Walmart, one of the state’s biggest employers.
“They can’t afford to feed their families,” he said.
As approved by the legislature, the increase to $15 an hour will take place over time.
“The increase of the mininimum wage, that’s not being phased in for five years,” Gucker said. “By the time we get it up to $15 an hour that minimum wage it’s going to be even higher.”
Gucker said he understood that higher wages posed costs for employers.
“I’m a small business owner. I understand, I get it,” he said.
Still, he felt the benefits for workers outweighed employers’ costs.
“I’d support going farther,” Gucker said.
“We need to take care of our most vulnerable.”
Connecticut enacted a new police accountability bill. Should Connecticut enact further police reforms, and if so what?
“Of course we support our local police,” Berger-Girvalos said. “Who doesn’t support their police officers?”
But that doesn’t mean opposing police reform initiatives — many prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“We need to take a breath and do this right,” Berger-Girvalo said.
“...We need to talk about what we need to do in the future,” she said.
“We have to bring communities like ours to the table to talk about how we should be responding to this…
“I think we have a tendency to focus on ‘defund the police’ — it’s being used as a slogan,” she said.
“What we have now are some really good first steps,” she said.
“I met with two members of our Police Commission here in Ridgefield — this was not done with an intention to undermine what our police department does,” she said.
“We need to be a model for police accountability here in Ridgefield,” she said, “and I think that we are.”
Hebert had concerns about the police accountability bill the legislature passed — supporting some aspects and opposing others.
“There are some items in there that make perfect sense,” he said “...ongoing training, even the body cams.”
He worried the bill added costs for local police departments.
“We’re being squeezed between a movement that wants to defund the police, yet we want to require all this additional equipment on them,” he said.
Hebert also said the bill opposed having police — “school resource officers” or “SROs” — in school buildings.
“The Police Accountabilty Bill takes SROs out of the schools. I would not support that,” Hebert said. “Taking SROs out of our schools would be dangerous and irresponsible.”
He also didn’t like the way the bill was pushed through the legislature.
“I think the way this was done, in a special session with limited public input, with limited opportunity to really think through all the implications and unintended consequences of this bill — that’s where I have the problem,” Hebert said.
“There were some good things,” he said, “but there were also some things in there that are putting our police officers in danger, are putting our residents in danger.”
Gucker was in the legislature when the bill passed.
“The Police Accountability BIll was probably one of the hardest votes I’ve ever had to take,” he said. “My brother-in-law is a captain of the Danbury Police...
“I do know we needed to make some change — a lot of changes,” Gucker said.
“If you’ve got some bad actors, if you don’t reel them in, that option is going to be taken away from you.”
On the issue of “qualified immunity” — which protects police officers and other public officials from many lawsuits — Gucker said the bill didn’t eliminate the concept, but had scaled it back to what it was before years of action by police unions had worked to expanded it.
“The police accountability bill brought back qualified immunity to what it was originally meant to be,” Gucker said.
He addressed criticism of the way the bill was passed.
“They say it was rushed. It wasn’t rushed,” Gucker said. “We had 12 hours of testimony.”
Are there more guns safety measures that our state should pass? If so, what? If not, why not?
“We should do something about these straw buyers that are able to go down to Virginia and buy van-loads of guns and bring them back to Connecticut,” said Gucker.
He also praised “safe storage” laws such as one recently passed recently in memory of 15-year-old Ethan Song, requiring guns, loaded or unloaded, to be kept in locked containers if someone under 18 is likely to gain access to them.
“I was happy to support Ethan’s Law,” Gucker said.
Hebert offered qualified support for gun regulation.
“Connecticut does have one of the strictest gun control laws in the country,” he said.
“I would support conversation about gun safety. We will want to keep guns from those who commit violent crimes or those who are dealing with mental issues,” Hebert said.
“But I will not support the confiscation of legal guns.”
Berger Girvalo said she’s been endorsed by two groups working to tighten gun regulation — Moms Demand Action and Connecticut Against Gun Violence.
“Their mission statement is to reduce gun violence through grass roots initiatives,” she said.
“Reducing community gun viollence” is a goal Berger-Girvalo said she obviously supports — although she didn’t think it was a particular problem in town.
“We don’t have community gun violence here in our community,” she said.