Finances and taxes, education and transportation were among the topics discussed by Republican State Senator Toni Boucher and Democrat Carolanne Curry, her challenger to represent the 26th District towns of Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton, Weston, Westport, New Canaan and Bethel.
Ms. Boucher, in her fourth year in the state senate after 12 years representing Wilton in the State House of Representatives, and Ms. Curry, a Wesporter active in Democratic politics since Ella Grasso ran for governor in 1974, met at a League of Women Voters forum — not a full blown debate — at Founders Hall, the senior citizens center in Ridgefield.
The candidates were first asked to analyze the state’s fiscal situation, and say what they favored to improve it.
“Barron’s just proclaimed Connecticut the most fiscally mis-managed state in the country,” Ms. Boucher said.
State spending is “7.2% more in the last two years despite the fiscal downturn,” she said.
Gov. Dannel Malloy and his Democratic allies in the legislature gave the state “the largest retroactive tax increase in its history,” she said. “This has jobs and people fleeing the state, and its unsustainable.”
Ms. Boucher supported a “no tax-increase alternative” budget put forward by Republicans in the legislature.
Ms. Curry spoke of the state’s fiscal problems as derived from the national economic problems as opposed to the decisions of the current Democratic administration.
“This fiscal mess is a mess you see across 50 states,” she said. “This did not happen this year,” she added.
“There were years prior to this governor where there were opportunities to revise the budget… We have a couple of opportunities to address where corporate businesses pay out taxes.”
Improve business climate
What would the candidates do to improve Connecticut’s business climate?
“It’s two steps. It’s the quality of our education, and it’s taxes,” Ms. Curry said.
The educational reforms passed in the last legislative session were designed to help under-performing districts in large cities, she said, and may be counter-productive for high-performing schools in 26th District towns like Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton and Weston.
“Here in the 26th District we have paid a price for that,” she said.
“If the education level in the state improves, we will be attracting businesses.” Ms. Curry said.
Ms. Boucher said, “Jobs growth is a concern, tax increases are a concern, educational disparities.”
High taxes are costs for businesses and already a reason employers are leaving Connecticut. But to cut taxes, the governor and legislature have to reduce state spending, Ms. Boucher said.
“The governor has already said he wouldn’t rule out another tax increase,” she said.
“The anti-business climate is well known and it’s the reason businesses are leaving… We have to change our tax policy to keep our businesses healthy.”
The candidates were asked under what circumstances the they would support raising taxes. Neither took the bait.
“Really, I can’t see raising taxes at this point,” Ms. Curry said. “…The tax burden that’s the greatest is the property tax.”
Property taxes in Connecticut are enacted on a town by town basis, not by the state. But Ms. Curry envisioned a program which might permit caps or limits to be adopted — and waived, if circumstances demand it — by votes of town legislative bodies like the Town Meeting.
Ms. Boucher couldn’t envision supporting a tax hike. “In this economy, no way should we be raising taxes,” she said.
State government is too big and too expensive, she said. “It’s unconscionable the State of Connecticut is the largest employer.”
The state could reduce costs by negotiating tougher contracts with its workers, she said. “It used to be the private sector had better wages and benefits. Now it’s the reverse.”
Campaign spending limits
The candidates were asked about campaign spending limits, and whether they’d support Connecticut ratifying a Constitutional Amendment to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizen’s United case, which struck down regulation of political contributions — ruling that spending money in campaigns amounts to constitutionally protected free speech.
“This is a federal issue,” Ms. Boucher said. “…There is nothing we can do here in the state of Connecticut.”
Mr. Boucher said there’s been a similar issue, locally, concerning the right of towns to regulate lawn signs with political messages.
Ms. Curry said political money should be limited — and donors made public.
“I am totally supportive of campaign financing reform,” she said.
The system is thrown out of balance “if you do not have accountability as to who your donors are,” she said. “We have Super PACs that are ruining our elections.”
Any particular issues the candidates hoped to put forward?
“I’m very involved in education reform,” Ms. Boucher said, adding she has also been “a strong advocate for rails.” She hopes to advance efforts to “re-electrify the train stations” along the Danbury branch line.
As Wilton’s state representative, she’d “helped fight Super 7 through Ridgefield and Redding” as well as her home town.
If re-elected, she would attempt to “deal with our tax issues,” she said, and “phase out the inheritance taxes.”
Ms. Curry said she would seek property tax relief. Both New York and Massachusetts had made progress with state laws that limited local property tax increases, which could help older people now being asked to “age at home” and also boost real estate values.
“If Connecticut joins New York and joins Massachusetts, and had a cap on property taxes, it would go a long way,” Ms. Curry said.
An “ethical” question was posed: What would candidates do if their constituents strongly favored one side of a particular issue, but their conscience and judgment of what would be best for the district and the state favored the other side?
Early in her political career, Ms. Boucher said, a veteran legislator had shared her “three C’s” hierarchy to sort out difficult decisions: “Your conscience, your constituency, your caucus” — meaning your political party’s position counts, but it comes behind what’s best for the people in your district, and both come behind your understanding of what’s right.
“There are certain issues — death penalty, abortion” — where a legislator should vote on personal conscience. “You have to live with yourself first,” Ms. Boucher said.
Ms. Curry offered a simpler outlook: Do what you think is right.
“If you don’t demonstrate the moral will,” she said, “you’re not good to anybody.”
She pointed to the four Republican state senators in nearby New York who had voted with Democrats to legalize same-sex marriage, and then faced strong opposition in primaries. One had retired, one was defeated, and two won at primary and will be on the fall ballot.
“I will vote the right, ethical way,” Ms. Curry said.
What about transportation issues, the candidates were asked: Tolls? Gasoline taxes? Mass transit? Roads?
“I want to get the trucks off 95. There’s a way to do that,” Ms. Curry said.
Much of the truck traffic that makes the coastal highway so noxious is headed through Connecticut to the rest of New England, she said.
She proposed spending on road improvements that would allow more trucks to take alternative routes north.
“We have the most congested corridor,” Ms. Boucher said. “…It has been neglected for 30 or 40 years.”
Ms. Boucher said she’d worked to improve rail transportation with fellow Republican Jodi Rell, who had financed the purchase of 380 new rail cars as governor.
But she strongly opposed financing transportation improvements with additional tolls and taxes.
“Imagine the reintroduction of tolls!” she said. “I’ve fought this bitterly.”
She also opposed raising gasoline taxes — already among the nation’s highest. The problem was that gas tax income supposedly “dedicated” to transportation kept being siphoned off by the legislature and used for other budgetary purposes.
“It’s re-appropriating and re-prioritizing how you spend the state’s money,” Ms. Boucher said.
The candidates were asked about education reform, passed through bi-partisan action in the last session.
“When they approach me about education reform, I’m all in,” Ms. Boucher said.
The education reform bill that eventually passed was changed to address some concerns raised by teachers’ unions. “Teachers were worried about teacher evaluation and dismissal,” she said.
Some difficult issues were put off for another time, with the goal of getting something done now.
“It’s soft education reform,” Ms. Boucher said. “But it’s a good first step.”
Ms. Curry said the reform bill crafted in Hartford was designed to help struggling urban schools, and would not benefit systems like those in the 26th District, with fine, often nationally recognized, schools. It could even be counter productive.
“Teaching to the test is not teaching creativity,” she said.
She also worried that the state has overemphasized expanding charter schools. “Charter schools are using your tax dollars to get established and it’s not where you want our tax dollars to go, which is public education.”