WESTON/REDDING/EASTON, CT — The League of Women Voters presented a forum for the candidates in six state elections Wednesday night.
The town hall-style debate was held online through the web conferencing platform Zoom, and moderated by Colleen Joyce, a director at the League's Redding chapter. She posed questions to the candidates on topics submitted by local residents, and by far the most divisive of these concerned taxes and the state budget.
Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, the Democrat incumbent in the race for the 2nd House District, said it was easy to "complain from the back of the chamber," about the spending in Hartford. He credited Sen. Will Haskell and himself for winning "seats at the table" during their first terms.
"We've been able to make sure that our towns get a lot to bring back," said Allie-Brennan, whose district consists of parts of Bethel, Redding, Newtown, and Danbury.
The representative faulted "Republican leadership in Hartford" for not paying down public workers' pension liability. He praised the current legislature for turning that around: "We're paying them on time now, and we are getting results there."
Allie-Brennan's opponent, Republican/Independent Dan Carter, served previously in the House as District 2's representative for three consecutive terms through 2016. He countered that Republicans "have not had control of that chamber for 40 years," and called blaming them for unfunded pension liability "disingenuous at best." Carter said that the state has recently been the beneficiary of "a wonderful influx of New Yorkers" and expressed concern that the state's high taxes might drive them out.
"We had $1.75 billion in new taxes and fees this year," Carter said.
District 26 Democrat incumbent Sen. Will Haskell said he was proud to have "fought for a budget that was not perfect" but did not result in increased income taxes, "which Connecticut has a bad history of doing. And most importantly, it bolstered Connecticut's 'rainy day fund.' It took us decades to get into this fiscal mess; anyone on the ballot this year who is promising a silver bullet to our fiscal situation probably isn't telling you the full story."
Haskell's district consists of the entirety of Westport, Wilton, Ridgefield, and Redding, and parts of Bethel, New Canaan and Weston.
While there is "a lot of bad news," the senator conceded, he focused on the "good news," which he said included a $30 million budget surplus, and a rainy day fund that hit an "historic high of $3.1 billion."
"That's helping to keep the lights on, that's helping Connecticut continue to provide critical services, whether it's in our public schools, or (coronavirus) testing that's widely available to the public. That's because some of us stood up and said 'absolutely not' when my colleagues in the Senate said, 'hey, let's take two-thirds out of the rainy day fund and spend it on infrastructure.'"
The rainy day fund ensured the state was prepared for its current economic crisis, according to the senator.
Haskell said he agreed with Republicans that "fat" in the budget could be trimmed, but he challenged them to name the specific line items they would cut, and which departments they would privatize.
Republican/Independent Kim Healy, who is running against Haskell on Nov. 3, zeroed in instead upon the "bad news." She said her experience as a certified public accountant and auditor with international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers made her best-positioned to cut through the budget tangle.
"I have been basically working on budgets my entire career, which is 30 years," she said, and unless something is done, "We're looking at an $8 billion deficit over the next three years."
The debt "amounts to about $51,000 per taxpayer," according to Healy, but the COVID-19 wildcard prevents anyone from responsibly committing to specific spending cuts.
John Shaban, a Republican/Independent who served as 135th District representative from 2011-17, is running for that seat again. The district covers Easton, Redding, and Weston. He said that during his first term the state was "facing multi-billion dollar deficits." As a result the legislature passed the highest tax increase in the state's history, which he opposed. The tax hike resulted in record tax receipts, according to Shaban,"but again, because of our spending, we had another multi-billion dollar deficit come 2012-14. So what'd we do? We raised taxes again: another record tax increase!"
Shaban said the state changes the tax codes and rates annually, which was driving businesses out of Connecticut.
"We have 50,000 state workers, we don't need that many," Shaban said. "We can privatize a lot of it."
Shaban's opponent, Democrat incumbent, Rep. Anne Hughes, also took credit for the pension pay down turnaround, and said residents have become more reliant on public officials during the pandemic. She cited the Departments of Labor and Public Health as having proven crucial during the coronavirus crisis. Staffing at both those agencies has been cut, she said, and residents are suffering as a result.
Hughes said she was proud the state has so far been able to weather the pandemic without raising taxes. "We plan to do more responsible stewardship," she said.
In addition to the presidential and congressional races, all state House of Representative and Senate seats are up for grabs this election cycle. Voting will be different this year thanks to a law which allows absentee ballot voting for all voters in light of the coronavirus pandemic. You can check your voting status on the Secretary of State's website, where you can also find your polling place.