Updated 1:23 p.m.: Copy edit.
NORWALK, Conn. – Stark differences emerged Monday between two finance professionals seeking to represent District 142 for the next two years in the State House.
While incumbent State Rep. Fred Wilms (R-142), who was first elected in 2014, said there’s room to cut Connecticut’s spending, his Democratic challenger, Lucy Dathan, said, “We can’t be shortsighted and cut our way to prosperity.” Dathan said she supports tolls and took shots at Wilms, accusing him of voting with his Party 97 percent of the time; Wilms said he’s voted with his Party 98 percent of the time but also with the Democrats 75 percent, and said Democrats want to use tolls to solve their excess spending problems.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Wilms and Dathan shared the spotlight in the New Canaan Town Hall auditorium with State Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) and his Democratic challenger, Ross Tartell, in the debate-like candidate forum sponsored by The League of Women Voters of New Canaan, the New Canaan Advertiser, and New Canaan Public Access Television – Channel 79.
Wilms is former Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman and a Webster Bank Senior Vice President working with small businesses. Dathan, a New Canaan resident, is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) who has served as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for Spectrum Technologies LLC and Domino Data Lab, and as manager of finance and intellectual property for the London Stock Exchange from July 2003 to October 2005.
Connecticut’s fiscal ‘crisis’
“What revenue streams would you suggest to make Connecticut fiscally sound?” Moderator Kate Hurlock asked, to begin the forum.
“People are leaving and taking their revenues with them,” Wilms said. “Especially people who have a lot of affluence… Our revenues are growing organically at zero. But our expenses are growing organically at about eight percent. So that’s the mathematical definition of a fiscal crisis that we are in.”
“I have identified 25 percent of the budget for expenses that we can reduce,” Wilms said, mentioning $2.5 billion in non-salary compensation for employees because “nobody gets free health care anymore.”
The state could save $1 billion by having nonprofits provide social services, he said.
Dathan said, “I find this whole discussion worrying, that we are listening to Republican governor candidates who want to take away our income tax because that is funding our education,” and asserted that 60 percent of the budget is funded by income tax, that cutting income taxes would decimate the schools.
She attacked Wilms for supporting a municipality-centric sale tax, arguing that it would disproportionately affect senior citizens.
Wilms said that 30 years ago, Connecticut did not have an income tax and attracted new residents.
“We need to be competitive against New York,” Wilms said, arguing that the income tax should be lowered and the estate and gift taxes scrapped.
“The income tax has nothing to do with the schools, certainly in New Canaan, we get no aid from the state, it’s paid for the property tax,” Wilms said.
“It’s shocking that Fred dismisses ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) that Norwalk receives,” Dathan replied. “… We have a wonderful opportunity to fund our schools, fund our post educational programs to invest in our students.”
Wilms and Dathan both said they support the ballot measure calling for all money in the Special Transportation Fund to be used solely for transportation purposes, although they feel there are holes in the language as the “lockbox” could be picked.
Connecticut is the only state between Maine and North Carolina that does not charge tolls, and cars are getting more efficient so gas tax revenue is dropping, she said. Dathan said.
“Democrats have wanted to use tolls to plug holes in the budget.. to pay for reckless spending,” Wilms said.
The best way to fund transportation infrastructure is through capital bonds but Gov. Dannel Malloy has been using bonds to fund pork barrel projects, like a New Haven splash pad and the POKO bankrupt housing project and the bankrupt Wall Street Theater, Wilms said, advocating that bonding be prioritized for transportation.
People drive all the way through Connecticut without buying gas, and, “We shouldn’t be funding for people from New York to get to the Cape by using our roads,” Dathan said.
Wilms brought the conversation back to income taxes, asserting that the Commission On Fiscal Competitiveness And Economic Stability recommended phasing down the income tax and said there would be no impact on schools.
New Canaan only gets $345,000 in ECS and Wilms votes on party line 97 percent of the time, including voting to significantly cut funds for local community colleges and the University of Connecticut in a budget bill that did not become law, Dathan said.
“I voted repeatedly, as have my Republican colleagues, to protect town aid, which includes ECS and school funding,” Wilms replied, asserting that Republicans stopped Malloy’s plan to transfer teacher pension obligations to municipalities.
“I introduced the first bill to reform ECS,” Wilms said, mentioned that he and State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) teamed up last year on another run at the ECS formula.
“All due respect, I understand that your bill didn’t make it out of the Education Committee and never got voted on,” Dathan replied, explaining that it took nearly 40 years for a revision in the ECS formula, following a lawsuit filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice Education Funding (CCJEF).
“We need to look at other funding measures, like the Alliance Grant, to get more funding for our state and more funding for our towns that need more funding,” Dathan said.
“I don’t give up easily,” Wilms replied. “Yeah, my bill didn’t make it out of the Education Committee. The Democrats there thought I was a stranger from another planet… so I am on the Appropriations Committee. I got it put in the budget. The formula has been readjusted pretty much based on our bill in the budget, it’s now currently law. If you can’t go in through the front door, you go in through the back door.”
A high school student asked about gun safety.
Wilms said he’d supported security both at the City level and the State level, voting as BET chairman to put School Resource Officers in Norwalk Public Schools and voting to ban bump stocks and to take guns away from people on temporary restraining officers.
Dathan said she is a Moms Demand Action Candidate of Distinction and accused Wilms fo voting for amendments to weaken the bump stock bill.
“He and his caucus decided ghost guns weren’t appropriate to be talked about,” she said.
“Your own caucus doesn’t have majority to pass it through,” Wilms replied. “If that bill had come through, I would be willing to look at that.”
“I was shocked to find out in this process that you can, as a convicted stalker in this state, you can go and buy a gun,” Dathan said.
LGBT; voting on party lines
“We are all children of God,” Wilms said, professing support for LGBT rights before responding to Dathan’s accusation that he votes with Republicans 97 percent of the time.
“I thought it was 98 percent,” he said. “I voted with Democrats 75 percent of the time
We work together. We put bills through the committee process. The other 22 percent where I voted no, I am damn proud of it because these are all the bills that made the state into the fiscal mess that it is in and so, I am going to continue to do that.”
Dathan said she was happy that Wilms had supported two bills that helped the LGBT community but added, “I do find it disconcerting, though, that he didn’t think that an openly gay judge was fit to be sat on the bench.”
“I pride myself on being down as Switzerland for many of my companies,” she said. “I have sat of Boards of Directors where it is the most dysfunctional group of people you would ever want to meet and I have been bringing people together, and I am going to do the same thing in Hartford. Because we have too many problems to be short-sighted.”
“On the one hand we are expected to work together, on the other hand we are expected to stand up for our principles, too. That’s the mix,” Wilms replied, repeating that Connecticut is in a fiscal and economic crisis and, “If we are going to turn our state around we need to take a different approach.”
“I feel that we can’t be shortsighted and cut our way to prosperity,” Dathan said. “We have seen what has happened to other states that have done this. Look at Kansas, people are leaving the state, that can afford it. Other people are sending their kids to school four days a week because that’s all that they can afford. we can’t cut our way to prosperity. There is too much at stake for our state, we need to capitalize on our assets of where we are in our location, we need to capitalize on our asset of education.”
“I am a wife and a mother of three kids here in the New Canaan Public Schools,” Dathan said. “I spent 25 years working in finance. The last 15 years I have been a company CFO. I know what it means to be thinking long term and strategically. I look at what is going on in Hartford and I see a very short-term outlook. People are lurching from one budget cycle to the next, or one election cycle to the next. We can’t be doing that. our problems are too big to not be thinking long term.”
“I feel that we can’t send the same legislators up to Hartford and expect different results.
not very effective,” she said, calling Wilms a “back bencher.”
“He is not getting a lot done, he votes with his party, as he said, most of the time,” she said.
“I love our state and our state is in a real mess,” Wilms said, characterizing himself as having a “uniquely strong finance background” given his role in City government and as working with small business owners professionally.
“I get what our economy is like, I get what small businesses need and small businesses are the ones who are going to create jobs if we are going to get our economy growing again, get more jobs in the state .. that’s what we need to revitalize and I know how to do that,” Wilms said.
Norwalk got through the recession when he was BET chairman by doing “the kind of structural reforms that Hartford needs to do,” Wilms said, going on to call himself “one of the leading Republican members on the budget Committee.”
He was a key architect of the first Republican budget to get passed in 40 years, and was asked to give a key speech in support of that budget, and to lead the House debate on the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) contract, he said.
“I want to go back,” Wilms said. “We need to turn this state around, and we can because many of our towns and cities have already done it. You have done it here. We have done it in Norwalk, many other places. Together we can get this economy growing, we can get our state back to where it was before.”