NORWALK, Conn. – State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137) and his Republican challenger, Frank Page, discussed the issues Thursday in an amiable League of Women Voters debate.
Their sharpest divide was on tolls; both agreed on the importance of education, the desire to redevelop Wall Street and supporting existing healthcare programs, with Page tossing a few zingers into the conversation.
Page said Connecticut needs change, to deal with “a spending problem not a revenue problem.” Perone, who has held the seat for 13 years, said he feels positive about Connecticut’s future but the state needs to plan.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
‘Top three legislative priorities’
Asked for three priorities, Perone listed transportation, healthcare and education, particularly in retraining the workforce to fill advanced manufacturing jobs.
Page said Connecticut is in desperate need of new ideas, with Democrats proposing too many new taxes.
“If there is one message I want to convey to Norwalk voters, it’s that this does not need to be the way forward in our state. We do not, and can not, tax and toll our way back to prosperity,” Page said.
Keeping Connecticut fiscally sound and dealing with unfunded pension liabilities
“I am a business person, not a career politician,” Page said, explaining that he would examine the State’s finances line by line. He had been told that the State will become liquid in seven or eight years and the pension liability would need to be given a hard look, he said.
“The special transportation fund is becoming a larger and larger drain on our finances,” Perone said, explaining that gas tax revenues are dropping and the deficit will affect every part of Connecticut’s budget.
“I agree that we need to work on our unfunded pensions, because otherwise we’re going to get hit with this special transportation fund possibly imploding and this pension fund issue. So these do have to be a priority,” Perone said.
“The only traffic light I am worried about is the stop light on spending,” Page said, going on to agree that it’s possible that the transportation fund will be raided.
There is a ballot question this year asking voters to approve of a transportation lockbox.
“I feel that we, cannot build real support for any policy if people don’t trust us not to spend the money,” Perone said, voicing support for the lockbox. “it’s really the only way we can have a rational conversation going forward.”
Wall Street Place
Regarding the stalled Wall Street development commonly referred to as “POKO,” Page said he can walk there so he’s well aware of the issue. The City has finally cited Citibank for blight on the property so maybe that will cause some action, but with the 40 percent affordable housing component developers won’t touch it, he said, adding, “let’s put a train station in there, too.”
Perone said he’d gotten money for a train station study and the Wall Street area needs to be developed with an orientation toward transit. There’s been varying degrees of success since the flood of 1955, and “We have to make that a priority of ours,” he said, asserting that the Mayor’s Office and legislators have been keeping a spotlight on that goal.
Page agreed that density is needed in the area, as that would be great for small business.
Perone said that as funding comes in for the schools, it’s important to put it toward a great outcome for the kids, into projects like the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA).
“We have to fight for every dollar,” Perone said. “There’s no easy way to do it, but we are committed to doing it.”
Page said it’s nice to get public/private partnerships, and NECA is awesome.
“We have to make sure we get our equitable share. Chris has been up there alo years,” Page said, referring to the Educational Cost Sharing formula (ECS), and, “Even as a business person it’s pretty convoluted with how they come up with that.”
Perone said that in 2013 he heard about a program in New York State, with IBM teaming up with educators.
“I basically pushed like heck and got, with the governor’s office, the first NECA program in Norwalk, in the state of Connecticut. I am proud of that,” Perone said, commenting that his son is now attending NECA.
“I am not sure if Chris escorted Ivanka around (Norwalk High School),” Page shot back. “I figure you’re taking credit of NECA, (maybe take credit for Ivanka).”
“We haven’t seen a plan,” Page said, about tolls. “…I firmly believe we have a spending problem not a revenue problem. tolls are not the magic wand, I mean again, if we saw a plan at some point,t hat would be nice first so we can comment intelligently upon it.”
Small business owners are worried about the rumors they’ve heard about tolls but there are no specifics, and “To me, it’s another tax,” Page said. “You can call it a user fee. That’s a fancy word for tax.”
“We agree on a lot of things in Hartford but this one area is definitely contentious,” Perone said, commenting that Page is right but, “The Democratic majority are pushing to get that study done and it’s gotten shot down basically by the Republicans.”
“Unless we can invest in infrastructure, we can’t move our state forward in a a way that is competitive with all the states around us, that have made transportation funding a priority,” Perone said.
Page called it “really disappointing” that Perone didn’t oppose Gov. Dannel Malloy’s July plan to spend $10 million in borrowed funds to study electronic tolls.
“We don’t need a study. We don’t need a $10 million study, that’s for sure. I think we can all agree on that,” Page said.
“We have to ask these questions, as a state, as a citizenry what are we going to do to move our state forward? This study was part of that process,” Perone said. “So there was nothing nefarious about it, it’s just, it’s information we needed to have in order to move forward and we don’t have. So this is something that’s obviously going to something that’s got to be revisited.”
“We made good progress on prescription drugs in the last session,” Perone said, calling the cost of some drugs “outrageous” and asserting that Obamacare has had a positive impact and needs to be supported.
Prescriptions are just part of it, Page said, and, “I am all for keeping programs intact, like Connecticare.”
Page thanked Perone for his service and then said, “You have done quite enough.”
He’s been fortunate to talk to constituents and people are “ready for change, tired of increased taxes and decreasing home values,” Page said, asking the public to, “let a businessman, not a career politician, pioneer for change.”
“It’s been the honor of my life to take what I hear when I knock on doors and turn it into policy that I think matters,” Perone said. “I think that our focus on making support for small business, with access to capital, to get them going, has been good. My effort has been recognized, I have been endorsed by CBIA (Connecticut Business and Industry Association).”
Perone talked about his concern about healthcare but said, “Overall, I feel very positive about the state of Connecticut’s future. But we can’t get to this positive future unless we plan for it. That means, having a real open and honest discussion on transportation, how we are going to develop our infrastructure, how we are going to develop housing to keep our young people here.”