NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s state legislators spoke to voters recently, touching on state economic challenges, regionalization, a recent controversial vote for a state Supreme Court justice, tolls and a possible trade war with China.
The annual League of Women Voters Pie & Politics event began with State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142) using a chart to show that the state’s economy is the only one in the country to have shrunk.
“We are down 7.9 percent from 10 years ago. Everyone else, literally everyone else, has grown. That’s a real tragedy because you know we live in a beautiful, beautiful state. We have such a great quality of life… we seem to have taken a wrong turn,” Wilms said.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story.
“We are the only state in the country that has not fully regained the jobs lost in 2008,” State Rep. Terri Wood (R-141) said, suggesting that audience members look up the report issued by the Connecticut Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth.
“That report had good things in it but some really horrible things in it,” State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) said, citing contradictory comments on minimum wage.
Duff focused on state waste, targeting municipal spending.
The state government has shrunk 15 percent but municipal governments have not, and “That’s actually what’s choking the state, 169 small communities with little incentive to work together,” Duff said.
Just look in Norwalk City Hall, he said, pointing out that there’s a human resources department on the third floor, where the Board of Education offices are, and the first floor, for the city-side.
“That’s not just in our town, that’s all over the place,” Duff said.
Wilms and Wood went on to blast last year’s SEBAC (State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition) contract as a reason for Connecticut’s woes, with Wood commenting that every Republican gubernatorial candidate out there says they will reopen it.
The SEBAC agreement came up after Diane Lauricella asked if the Green Bank could be reinstated, asserting that jobs will leave Connecticut because there aren’t enough funds for energy-related rebates.
Wilms said he supports the Green Bank but the budget is very difficult, with a $2 billion deficit forecasted.
SEBAC needs to be renegotiated because, “We need to rebalance how much we spend on services,” Wilms said.
“Here in Norwalk, we don’t agree to 10-year contracts with anybody, at any time for any reason,” Wilms said. “It’s three years because we are smart enough to know you don’t lock things in. … It’s stupid, but that’s what the state did. Meanwhile, we have locked ourselves in and we are in a huge fiscal crisis. When you are in a crisis, what you need to be doing is making things more flexible, creating more options, so you can react. We can’t react, which is stupid.”
Duff said SEBAC saves $1.5 billion in its first two years and, “You can have layoffs for any employee hired after July 1.”
“As far as SEBAC goes… We locked ourselves into decisions that across the board need to be looked at,” State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137) said. “I think that when you have a new governor, when you have a new legislature, it’s tough to say what’s going to happen…. Whoever sits there is going to have an obligation to go through our finances and put concepts on the table that are going to try to … make us more competitive, make us stronger fiscally going forward.”
Municipal services should be coordinated and paid for regionally for economic efficiencies, Morris said.
“We can’t keep saying, ‘We’re going to do this on the back of state employees. Quite frankly, we have so many fewer state employees than we ever had,” Morris said. ‘… State government can’t always be the answer. It’s really about sustainability.”
State employees make much more money than they would in the private sector, Wilms said, with Duff replying that information came from the “right leaning” Yankee Institute, and, “Let’s stop beating up on people we don’t know, as a group of folks.”
“An assistant attorney general is not making any more money than an attorney in the private sector,” and a Department of Children and Families employee who goes out at 10 p.m. to assist families in an emergency is not making more money than a private sector employee, Duff said.
Of course, some state employees don’t do a good job but, “We have to stop using all these excuses,” Duff said, pointing out again that Connecticut’s 169 towns don’t share services.
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ed Camacho, sitting in the audience, said, “We are the only state that does not have county government, as far as I know.”
That was in connection to Connecticut’s poor fiscal performance, the only state not to show growth in the past decade.
“We really do need to have this discussion in the statehouses,” Camacho said. “We need to restore county government, we need to restore efficiency in the way we do business in this state because if we do not do that we will continue to be low man on the totem pole.”
Morris said that The Moore Commission studied regional efficiencies but, “The political will to get there still isn’t happening.”
“I don’t support forced regionalization,” Wilms said.
“We moved away from county government…. But I am up for taking a second look at it, see if we can maybe reboot,” Perone said.
“It’s such a big topic, and economists don’t see that as our driving issue, the lack of regionalization,” Wood said, asserting that the state’s human services effort is incredibly inefficient, that providing social help was done much better when it was done locally.
County government is prohibited by the state constitution, Duff said.
Vermont told its municipalities to reduce the number of school districts or see their funding dry up and it worked, and “If that’s not a good place to start I’m not sure what is … We all are subsidizing something someplace out that is grossly inefficient,” Duff said.
“I have been on both sides of the issue,” said Wilms, former Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) chairman. “… I can tell you the city is way more efficient than the state.”
Former Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton Thomson asked if there were other ways for Norwalk to create revenue, such as a local sales tax that would garner money from out of towners patronizing The SoNo Collection.
“I have always favored the state allowing Norwalk to charge a small sales tax,” Wilms said. “This way, we would capture that value because a lot of those folks come to our town to shop. At the end of the day, what we are talking about is really wealth redistributions. We are talking about money coming from the wealthy suburbs and coming here. This is a great way to do it. It’s voluntary. As we know, Darien and New Canaan will never allow a home depot to go through… so we pretty much have a captive audience on that one.”
There was a bill last year that would have allowed municipalities to charge a sales tax, and while it generated discussion it didn’t make its way into the budget, Morris said.
There’s a bill again this year, and more legislators are getting onboard, he said.
Duff brought up the failed nomination of Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald to be Chief Justice, and called it a partisan issue, even with some Democrats voting with Republicans to defeat McDonald.
“We always voted on qualifications. We’ve never voted on anything else,” Duff said.
Morris voted against McDonald.
Morris said he’s on the Judiciary Committee and the Committee has always vetted judges, with the governor withdrawing nominations if needed – and it was clear that McDonald did not have the votes.
“The innuendo that is out there has nothing to do with the actual reasons that people voted no,” Morris said, urging audience members to watch the footage of the hearing.
Wilms said he watched eight hours of testimony and voted no.
“I don’t care about political affiliations,” Wilms said, explaining that Chief Justice is about more than a vote on the Supreme Court as “This person is the CEO of the entire state judicial system. All the courts in the state, everything… I want to have someone who has the right temperament and who will follow the law.”
In other topics, Perone and Morris said tolls are needed to be a dedicated revenue stream for the Department of Transportation, with Wilms and Duff commenting that if approved, tolls would not be in-stated for four or five years because federal approvals are needed.
It’s “kind of a myth” that transportation funds have been put in the general fund, Duff said, asserting that the state has spent more money on transportation in the last six or seven years than had been done previously.
The world has changed, Mark Albertson said from the audience, asking legislators to comment on Connecticut’s role in an era of globalization.
Connecticut is important globally because it exports so much stuff, Duff said.
It’s a “real dereliction of duty that legislators have not traveled more internationally and made relationships, Duff said, explaining that he’s been to China and is worried about President Donald Trump starting a trade war.
“We’re going to be collateral damage on that,” he said, citing Pratt & Whitney defense exports and agricultural products and, “If it escalates this could be bad news.”
Wilms said Connecticut has world class industries and the third largest concentration of hedge funds, and he’d like to see biotech expand.
“You folks are not just representing us in Hartford. You’re becoming diplomats,” Albertson said.
Morris said he’s been to Taiwan, and many people come to Connecticut to go to college and the agriculture industry benefits from the demand from Taiwan.
Duff said Connecticut hosted Israeli businesses, and Hartford was their favorite out of the three cities they visited.
“That’s how these relationships are extremely important,” Duff said. “… We have to stop talking badly about our state because that does get around. That does impact how people receive us. So we have a lot of good things going for us and we have to start talking about some of those good things.”