After spending long hours preparing for a candidate debate, including soliciting questions from the public, the Madison Property Owners Association (MPOA) held a political debate Wednesday, Oct. 17 at Memorial Town Hall in Madison.
The debate, while memorable for some rhetorical fireworks that broke out between two candidates and the audience reaction to that, also covered a lot of ground on a number of issues including the high cost of doing business in Connecticut, education reform, state pension liabilities, staffing levels in state government, teachers unions, the high cost of retiring in Connecticut, the poor state of Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education in Connecticut, and how to best crack down on people who text while they drive.
The debate featured state Sen. Ed Meyer (D-12th District) and his Republican challenger Cindy Cartier, who are battling to represent the 12th District, which includes Branford, Durham, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison and North Branford. Also featured in the debate were incumbent state Rep. Noreen Kokoruda (R-101st Assembly District) and her challenger Democrat David Dwyer. The 101st Assembly District includes Madison and part of Durham.
The candidates' answers to the questions, for the most part, were consistent with their campaign platforms, which are as follows:
- Cindy Cartier's campaign slogan is "New Age ... New Direction!!!" She has said her priorities are to lower the tax burden to spur investment and economic growth; to help businesses create jobs through economic growth; to reduce wasteful spending and regulatory burdens; to restore sound fiscal practices in government, and to improve communications between citizens and Hartford. Cartier, citing more than 20 years of experience as an attorney and business owner, has said her record shows that she is an advocate of long-term fiscal planning that "strengthens our schools and services and maintains the quality of life and affordability we all value." Cartier said she has worked hard to keep budget increases low in Guilford, where she is on the Board of Selectmen, and that she has worked to implement a long range capital plan in that town.
- Ed Meyer's campaign slogan is "An Independent Voice Fighting For You." He says voters can count on him to "stir things up" and ruffle some feathers. He has said he's willing to vote against his own party when necessary, "like when I voted against the governor's recent tax increase because it was not balanced by responsible spending cuts." He said the challenge now is to rebuild Connecticut's economy and that his record includes working with Republicans to pass a major new job incentives bill. He said during the debate that twelve businesses in his senate district have been able to take advantage of job training, tax incentives and other facets of that bill. He also cited his work on behalf of the environment, as chair of the Environment Committee.
- David Dwyer, who currently serves as an in-house counsel for a small business in Cheshire, says his background in business and taxes will help him focus on issues that will make Connecticut a better place to live. He said his goal is to help build a stronger economy, improve education, and preserve quality of life. He also cites protecting the shoreline environment as a priority, along with increasing aid to municipalities "to help keep local property taxes in check." He said during the debate that one of his goals is to "level the corporate playing field" which is "tilted towards large corporations. He said tax loopholes for large corporations should be evaluated and eliminated where possible, allowing for a reduction in the overall corporate tax rate.
- Noreen Kokoruda's campaign slogan is "Bringing Common Sense To Hartford!" She said she has been proud to serve Durham and Madison and that her record shows she has worked to "restrain state spending and [oppose] tax increases." She counts among her accomplishments support for bipartisan legislation that helped create jobs and grow small business; proposing a no-tax-increase budget, working on comprehensive educational reform; working to cap the gas tax, supporting an increase in penalties for desecrating war memorials, and joining the Shoreline Preservation Task Force to study rising sea levels and other changes that threaten the coastline.
The moderator, MPOA Secretary Bob Maloney, said at the beginning of the debate that he would do his best to keep things under control and on topic.
"Our goal is to maintain tranquility, and ask for your cooperation," he said. "As a Boston Irish kid, I'll do my best to make this a malarkey-free one."
Some of the questions were addressed to specific candidates, others were posted to all. Here are some of the answers the candidates provided during the debate.
Question: Connecticut is about the nation's most expensive state for business and industry. Coupled with high costs for electricity, labor, healthcare, and local business taxes it's a struggle to make a profit. What legislation would you champion to stop the troubling exodus of existing companies, and attract out-of-state and international businesses to move here?
Cartier said she would work hard to "reduce onerous legislation. My opponent supported paid sick leave ... I would work to have that repealed." She said she also would work to get rid of the business entity tax "in its entirety." She said, in general, that she would work to reduce state spending as well and that she would work to change the culture in Hartford, one that is dependent on the payment of a wide range of taxes and fees by businesses, creating legislation that is not only burdensome, but confusing for business owners.
Meyer cited recent successful efforts by the state to combine departments and reduce redundant jobs. One example was the creation of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, which is working to reduce energy costs in the state. He also took issue with Cartier's assertion that she is a fiscal conservative, saying she "voted for every spending increase in Guilford for the last few years." He also said he was concerned that her experience as counsel for a variety of insurance companies would make her sympathetic to insurance interests to the detriment of individuals.
Cartier later refuted Meyer's assertion about spending increases, by saying that, during her tenure, budget increases in Guilford have been significantly reduced.
Question: It seems this election season every politician is for education reform that "will ensure our students can get jobs." But few, if any, have outlined an action plan. How will you approach this challenge, and what can state government do in the next session to improve the dismal performance of many Connecticut high schools?
Dwyer said that the best way to answer that question would be to "separate Madison out" along with other relatively wealthy high-performing districts. He said the educational system, as it is currently set up, is effectively a "two-tier system." He said he has spent time talking with teachers, who have told him "it's not about the money." Instead, he said, they want support and more professional development to allow them to effectively teach subjects in a way that is relevant to today's students, their college aspirations, and the workforce. He said he would push so that high-performing districts like Madison don't have to abide by all of the state educational mandates. He said teachers "want to be valued like they used to be. I remember all of my best teachers. We need to make sure that as a culture, we take seriously and value" their contributions, he said.
Kokoruda cited her experience on the Education Committee in the Connecticut General Assembly. She said it's become clear to her that even Connecticut's high performing schools cannot compete on a global basis. She said she is in favor of increasing state funding for charter schools, and to make improvements in basic education in the early grades. She said it was alarming to find out how many students cannot read, in the state, at the third grade level. "We need to support teachers and give them a professional path for training," she said.
Question: When it comes to underfunded state pension liabilities, Connecticut is one of the top states in the nation with the highest risk. Combine this with the state's mounting debt crisis, and we're tops in the nation for a financial meltdown. Are we going to be USA's Greece? What do you propose should be done with pension reforms, and the overly generous and early age retirement provisions?
Meyer agreed the state is doing a bad job with its pension funding. He said Connecticut is the third worst in the country. He said the problem goes back to Gov. John Rowland in 1997, when he negotiated a new contract with public sector employees. He said Gov. Dannel Malloy, in his recent negotiations with State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) and the teachers union, has started to reverse that trend. "We are making strides," he said.
Cartier used most of her time answering this question to respond to Meyer's earlier assertion that she voted for every spending increase in Guilford. "First of all, you voted for every spending increase since you've been in office," she said. She said her record showed that budget increases in Guilford, when she started, were in the range of 5 to 7 percent, and that they are now in the range of about 3 percent. "You know what his record has been for the past eight years," she said to the audience. "It's pretty clear who can balance a checkbook."
Question: Madison's Hammonasset State Park attracts some 2 million visitors every summer, putting a heavy strain on Madison's police, fire, and ambulance services and their budgets. Some suggest in return the state with its nearby equipment and manpower readily available should help maintain the new park at Griswold Airport as compensation to Madison. As our state rep, would you sponsor such a bill, or a bill to reimburse the town?
Kokoruda noted that Payments In Lieu of Taxes, also known as PILOT money, from the state was supposed to be about 45 percent of what taxes might have been on the property if it was not owned by the state. Instead, she said, it's about 27 percent. She also noted that the state, for budget reasons, has stopped fully supporting the park when it comes to security, putting a greater burden on local resources, particularly when it comes to being first responders to an incident. "In a little town like Madison" that is a big burden, she said, and should be addressed. On the other hand, she spoke in support of maintaining local control over maintenance of the town's newest park, Constitution Park, which is adjacent to Hammonasset. "I would worry that the state would not take care of it like we would," she said.
Dwyer agreed that he too would prefer to see local control over maintenance of the park. And, he said, "yes, I would push to get reimbursed. I would introduce legislation to get it done."
Question: One question nearly everyone urged us to ask tonight: What happened to this grandiose plan to consolidate numerous departments in state government and get rid of bloated staffing levels? State government employment continues to rise (along with its many political patronage jobs). If elected, what will you do about this costly over staffing problem?
Cartier said she would do on the state level what they have done in Guilford, which is "look for efficiencies." She noted that private sector solutions, such as agencies like SARAH, can often provide services less expensively and more effectively than the public sector. She noted that, in Guilford, the town worked to consolidate the engineering and public works department, and to reduce staffing levels through attrition. "With a plan in place, we can do this," she said.
Meyer spent some of his time answering this question by refuting Cartier's earlier assertion that he voted for every budget increase. "Actually I have voted against some state budgets," he said. He noted that, last year, the state cut 30 percent of its state agencies, and cut 10 percent from it's state public employment. He noted that the cut in public employment contributed to the state's high unemployment level. "The private sector has not suffered as much as the public sector" when it comes to rising unemployment, he said. He added, "there are still places where we can cut."
Question: Studies show that only 22 percent of American voters support teachers unions, and this was before the Chicago teachers strike last month seeking a 16 percent pay increase. Do you feel teacher union contracts are out of line, and what should our legislators do about teacher evaluations, eliminating under-performers, rewarding productive teachers, curtailing excessive teacher absenteeism, and controlling generous automatic pay increases?
"There is no way to answer that in a two-minute sound bite," said Dwyer, drawing appreciative laughter from both the moderator and the audience. He went on to say that many have "vilified teachers unions." "Don't blame the employee for asking for a raise," he said. "Blame the boss for giving it to them." He said more than 30 years of decisions, from both Democrats and Republicans, have put the situation where it is today. "We all of us collectively have to take responsibility for the past thirty years," he said. Why make an enemy of teachers unions, he asked. "They asked. We gave it to them. We cannot undo the commitments of the past. We can address it with new teachers coming in." Dwyer encouraged an emphasis on merit pay. He added that teachers are not interested in being evaluated by a principal stopping in for ten minutes at a time twice a year. He urged a more thoughtful, thorough evaluation process.
Kokoruda said "if we don't reform collective bargaining we will keep having the same problems." She said Gov. Jody Rell made the change to start funding teacher's pensions, not Malloy. She agreed it was a problem trying to determine, on a statewide level, the best way to implement effective teacher reviews. She said there have been teachers who have not been evaluated in six or seven years, and that that was not acceptable or a good thing, for either the individual teachers, or their schools. She also noted that she has received support and an endorsement from the teachers union.
Question: Connecticut is THE nation's most expensive state for retirees to live because its sky state income taxes, death taxes, sales tax, gas tax and local property taxes. Many seniors are leaving for six-month or permanent residency in southern states. Should Connecticut have a Homestead Act and other tax breaks so seniors will stay here?
Meyer said Connecticut towns have the option to provide tax breaks to their seniors, but that the decision must be made on the local level. He noted that Guilford, where he lives, freezes the taxes of households with incomes of $100,000 or less. "Some towns have done this, some towns have not," he said. He noted that in Madison, similar measures have been discussed by town officials. He said he is working to reduce the cost of energy, the cost of health insurance, and high taxes in the state, all of which will benefit seniors. He also said that, while Connecticut has a high cost of living, it also has a high quality of living. Still, he said, working to reduce the high cost of living in the state is "part of what inspires me to continue in office.
Cartier said it wasn't $100,000 in Guilford, but $90,000 per couple. She said the town was able to do that because of its emphasis on planning, a process she is committed to at the state level. She said alleviating the high cost of living is a priority, since doing so allows older people to stay in their homes. She said she also wants to get rid of the state tax on Social Security.
Question: It appears STEM emphasis (science, technology, engineering, and math) in education is lacking in Connecticut at our high schools, the state's four regional colleges, and 20 something community colleges. Some say it's an absence of leadership and long range planning at the highest levels. What's your educated take on this matter, especially in better preparing ou students for today's job markets And what can legislators do about this academic crisis?
Kokoruda agreed that there is a big disconnect between schools and businesses when it comes to educating tomorrow's workforce. "We have people looking for jobs and companies that cannot find employees," she said. She said it is important for community colleges to make sure they are relevant to today's workforce. She said she has seen movement in this direction and is hopeful that businesses will participate in the process of making the state's schools more relevant to their needs.
Dwyer complimented Kokoruda's work in this area, saying "she is doing a good job" when it comes to education initiatives. When it comes to STEM, he said, "it's something that rolls off of everyone's tongue. He said it is important to work harder to get businesses and the schools working together. He noted that he has a three-year-old daughter and he wants to make sure there are jobs here for her when she grows up.
Traffic safety experts contend texting and cell phone use while driving is challenging drunk driving when it comes to accidents, injuries, and deaths. It appears there's been lax enforcement of existing state laws, and penalties are too lenient, especially for repeat offenders. Madison has more motor vehicles than people and cell phone use is high. What would you do in the way of tougher state laws, coupled with funding for local police departments such as those grants given for the successful campaigns for seat belt usage and DWI enforcement?
Meyer agreed it was a problem and that enforcement is a local responsibility. He noted that last year the legislature increased the fine for driving while using a cell phone, and that it's up to local police departments to enforce that. He also noted that stronger standards and guidelines have been put into place specifically for teenagers, who are more apt to have accidents. In terms of more state funding, he said he wasn't sure if that was possible, but that he would consider seeking it if it was available.
Cartier said Guilford has been successful in reducing accidents through an education program implemented through the local schools. It's been "hugely successful," she said. She said there was a "horrific accident" a few years ago and that distracted driving may have been a factor, and that the education campaign was implemented after that. "To me this is a local issue," she said. "Increasing fines at the state level won't stop people." She said she would be happy to work with other municipalities to implement the same kind of program that is being used in Guilford.
Kokoruda agreed it was an important issue and told a story about a young woman who had her license for six weeks, and then, when texting and driving, killed a jogger. "She was 17 years old," she said. She also said it is a local issue in terms of making sure existing rules are enforced. She said she would be concerned about implementing another mandate on local municipalities.
Dwyer also said it was more of an enforcement issue than a matter of implementing more legislation. "The laws are on the books," he said. He noted that, a long time ago, drunk driving was accepted, and that over a period of time, education and enforcement turned that around. He said the same thing should be done with cell phone use and texting while driving. "I would not support anything else coming from the state," he said.
Editor's note: This story was corrected Monday, Oct. 22, at 5:56 a.m. to change a comment attributed to Kokoruda. "Gov Malloy [made] the change to finally start funding the teacher's pension. This was done under Rell not Malloy," Kokoruda said via email Sunday night.