Common outlooks, consensus on many issues, and occasional, respectful disagreements marked an open meeting with Ridgefield’s three state legislators, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
“I like to see the collegiality,” Ridgefield League of Women Voters president Marilyn Carroll said after the event at the Ridgefield Library on Saturday, March 30. “It’s nice to see Republicans and Democrats working together.”
A tone of mutual respect seemed evident among the three legislators: 111th District state Rep. John Frey, a 21-year veteran Republican, and his two first-term Democratic colleagues, 138th District state Rep. Ken Gucker and 26th District state Sen. Will Haskell.
About 60 Ridgefielders came in from the morning’s warm spring weather to hear the three discuss state issues and answer questions on topics ranging from school regionalization to taxes, tolls, gun control and medically assisted suicide.
The league’s questions included one about school regionalization. Did the legislators support any of three bills pushing the regionalization idea? Did they see any good aspects to the concept?
“It was a little bit of trial by fire,” said Haskell.
The issue came up early as he was just settling in for his first session in Hartford, and there were proposals on school regionalization by fellow Democrats, including the governor.
It didn’t take him long to realize his constituents were against the idea, so he should be, too.
“Part of the reason people live in Ridgefield is the quality of the schools,” Haskell said. “...I’d never support anything that could undermine the quality of our schools.”
While there was “a lot of pressure to ‘just say no,’ ” Haskell said, “I think it’s better to have a seat at the table.”
One approach now sought to “incentivize school regionalization” — not requiring it, but focusing on “how schools can share back-office services if they’re very small and have declining enrollment.”
Only one town in his district — Redding — fit the parameters. “I called. They said ‘we already do this stuff,’ ” Haskell said.
On regionally shared services, he said, “voluntary is the key word.”
Rep. Frey was strongly opposed.
“When not in the legislature, I sell real estate,” Frey said.
“There’s one reason people live to Ridgefield — our schools,” he said.
He’d had the experience himself, and spoken to others in real estate business who’d had prospective buyers holding off on house purchases out of concern they’ll pay Ridgefield prices for Ridgefield schools, and then end up in a regionalized district due to state meddling.
“We’re losing transactions in Ridgefiled because of school regionalization, pure and simple,” Frey said.
Education involves a lot of tough decisions.
“I trust our local Board of Education to make those decisions,” Frey said.
There might be some areas other than education where regional efforts can save money.
“We can do animal control regionalization. We can do dispatch regionalization,” Frey said.
But he’s skeptical of any efforts to push regionalization of schools on communities that don’t want to do it.
“When I hear ‘we’re going to do it with carrots and less sticks’ — there should be no sticks,” Frey said.
While initial regionalization proposals may not fly, Frey worries the concept may come back now that it’s been under discussion.
“It’s a big, big concern,” he said.
Gucker’s 138th District includes Ridgefield north of George Washington Highway, a swath of Danbury and part of New Fairfield.
“In my district is the largest high school in the state, Danbury High School,” he said. “Fifty-three languages are spoken there. We’re not going to regionalize with anybody.”
But Gucker said it was important to look at the goal of the regionalization proposals — to reduce unnecessary spending by sharing services.
“If we can knock a few hundred thousand dollars off the Board of Education budget,” he said, “we can start fixing some potholes.”
League questioner Linda Hanley asked the legislators about tolls, which have been proposed in the governor’s budget.
“I don’t support tolls,” said Frey.
Former governor Dannel Malloy had a plan for 82 tolls on Connecticut’s major highways, and now Gov. Ned Lamont was proposing 52 tolls in the state, Frey said.
There are proposals for tolls every six miles, Frey said. Other states do a better job, he said.
“Massachusetts has 14 tolls on the Mass Pike, and three outside Boston. They collect $347 million,” Frey said. “... Exits on the Mass Pike are 30 miles apart.”
The plans put forward for Connecticut have too many tolls.
“I can drive to Montreal without paying a toll,” Frey said. “... Yet I won’t be able to drive to Costco in Brookfield without paying two tolls.”
“There are some really big faults with a 52-toll plan in Connecticut,” Frey said.
Gucker, too, was skeptical of tolls, though he said they were an attempt to deal with the serious problem, decaying transportation infrastructure, without relying heavily on more borrowing — which he considered the wrong way to go.
“How do we fix our roads?” he said. “...I don’t like the bonds concept. I also don’t support tolls.”
Advocates of tolls proposed them only for the state’s major highways, he said.
“They’re looking at doing them on 84, 95 and 91,” he said, adding that the idea of tolls on the Merritt Parkway goes “up and down.”
He said talk of “trucks only tolls” was impractical at this point because the concept is subject to a lawsuit in Rhode Island.
“I don’t see a plan that works,” Gucker said of tolls. “I also don’t buy into all the fear mongering.”
“I actually do support the concept of tolling,” Haskell said. “We’re the only state between Maine and North Carolina who doesn’t ask drivers to contribute.”
Tolls no longer have to mean long lines of cars stopped, polluting while drivers wait to toss coins into baskets.
Under one plan, Connecticut drivers could get a 30% discount, with an additional 20% for commuters who regularly take a given route and pass under the same toll gantry over and over.
The league also asked the legislators if they supported bills banning “ghost guns” — the weapons, or weapons parts that can be purchased and assembled without serial numbers — and also two bills requiring the safe storage of firearms in homes and cars.
Frey said he’d cosponsored the ghost guns bill.
On the safe storage bills, he said, “I’ve cosponsored the one on motor vehicles” but concerning the bill on safe storage “in homes” Frey is “not yet a cosponsor” although he added he’d consider it. “I’m open to doing that,” he said.
“I’m a cosponsor of all three of those bills,” said Gucker.
“If you’re making a ghost gun, you’re doing it for obvious reason,” he said. “It circumvents all our background checks.”
The bill on safe storage of guns in homes was known as “Ethan’s law,” he said, after a boy who’d been killed in an accident with gun that wasn’t locked up at a neighbor’s house. He also supported the bill on safe storage of guns in motor vehicles.
“If you’re going to leave your gun in your car, lock it up, put it in the trunk,” he said.
“These are common sense,” Gucker said of the safe storage bills. “They don’t take away from anybody’s rights. It’s common-sense gun ownership.”
“I’m a cosponsor of every one of these bills,” Haskell said.
“You should not be able to order gun parts on the Internet and assemble them,” he said.
Currently, he said, “In Connecticut, if a gun isn’t loaded, you don’t have to put in the safe.”
Some gun owners object to laws about firearms as attacks of their Second Amendment rights, Haskell said, but he didn’t think reasonable laws are unconstitutional.
“I see the words ‘well regulated’ in the Second Amendment,” Haskell said. (The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”)
Gender and bathrooms
During questions by citizens, the legislators were asked if they supported two bills that addressed “LGBTQ rights.” One bill would ensure “gender non-conforming students” have “safe access to bathroom facilities while in middle school and high school” and the other would outlaw the use of “gay and transgender panic” as a criminal defense.
“I’m a cosponsor of both bills,” Haskell said, though he wasn’t sure if they’d move forward in the legislative process.
On the gay and transgender panic bill, Haskell said that currently “If you’re so shocked someone comes out to you, you can use that as a defense in a homicide.”
Frey was skeptical that panic or shock at the revelation someone is transgender could be used in a legal defense for an assault on them.
“That’s a hate crime,” Frey said.
As for the bill on school bathrooms, Frey said, “before I commit to that” he would want to talk to some Ridgefield school officials.
“I’m meeting with the Board of Education. I’d like to get their input on that,” he said.
Gucker said he was comfortable with the LGBT rights bills.
“I’d have no problem supporting those,” he said.
Another citizen question concerned a proposal for the state to take over car taxes that currently go to municipalities, and redistribute the revenue. “There seems to be a Robin Hood mentality,” said the questioner.
“You may push people to register vehicles out of state,” Gucker said. “I think it would further exacerbate the problem.”
There are a variety of attempts by the state to draft the help of towns and cities in its efforts to climb out of a fiscal hole decades in the making.
“I don’t think you’re going to see too many of these bills go anywhere,” Gucker said.
Frey also didn’t think the car tax proposal would get through the legislature — at least not without some changes.
“In my 21 years, we’ve never adopted the governor’s budget,” Frey said. “It’s kind of like sausage-making.”
But he acknowledged that the state’s fiscal distress would have to be addressed, even if legislators and constituents alike were unhappy with the solution.
“In the end, some tax increases may be part of the equation,” Frey said.
Haskell said the state’s goal — in addition to raising revenue — was to make car taxes fairer. Currently, the taxes paid on cars varies with town and city mill rates, which are greatly affected by the value of the local real estate.
“A Prius in Bridgeport has a higher tax on it than a Ferrarri in Greenwich,” Haskell said.
He said he’d “like to find a way” to make car taxes more fair.
“I look forward to working with the House moderate caucus to find a middle road,” Haskell said.
A citizen who later said he watched his mother, his mother-in-law and his wife all die of cancer asked where the legislators stood on a “compassionate” right to die bill that would allow terminal patients with less than six months to live to choose a “peaceful end” with pills provided by a doctor.
“I’ve heard both sides,” said Frey. “... I see both sides of the issue.”
It isn’t a simple question. “There’s the issue of someone who can’t take the pills themselves, maybe they’ve got ALS,” he said.
He offered to talk to the questioner privately after the program.
“I’m not closed-minded on that issue,” Frey said.
Gucker said he backs the bill.
“I watched my grandmother die of cancer. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever had to watch,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have a problem supporting this,” Gucker said.
He added, “If you’re against this, don’t do it. Leave people to make their own decisions ... This is something that has to do with compassion.”
Haskell, too, was sympathetic to the bill under consideration, but said he understood it was “a few votes short” of getting out of committee.
“It has strong protections against abuse,” he said, including that the person “has to request it twice in writing” for medically assisted suicide to be considered legal.
“The consensus of the medical community is engaged neutrality” Haskell said. “They’re not opposed to the bill.”