NORWALK, Conn. – Tolls, economic development and recreational marijuana were among the topics covered by area legislators last week during a robust breakfast discussion hosted by the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce.
The forum also featured “yes or no” answers in what moderator Harry Carey called a “lightning round,” and a mini-debate between State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) and State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), in which Duff twice rebutted Lavielle’s comments. The proposal to put tolls on major highways drew varied opinions. Legislators were generally against a possible Bridgeport casino, with Duff against and State Rep. Lucy Dathan (D-142) “on the fence”.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Duff, State Senator Will Haskell (D-26) and State Representatives Tom O’Dea (R-125), Chris Perone (D-137), Jonathan Steinberg (D-136th), Terrie Wood (R-141st), Laveille and Dathan participated in the breakfast panel at the DoubleTree hotel. State Rep. Travis Simms (D-140) was invited but did not attend.
Carey, AT&T external affairs Director, asked Duff about the state’s economic course, referencing the “somewhat-controversial” appointment of David Lehman as Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Commissioner, and the news that GE Capital is moving out of Merritt 7, as has Diageo.
Lehman, a Goldman Sachs partner, “brings a new perspective and a different set of connections,” a different “rolodex,” Duff observed. “For me anyway, I think it’s important for us to give him a chance, to articulate the vision that he has.”
Lehman did “very well” in front of the Finance Committee but it takes time to learn the job, Duff said, noting that Lehman is a “private sector business person” coming into state government.
Lavielle said she likes Lehman very much but she’s troubled that she’s seeing an emphasis on attracting tourism but little on efforts to attract new business.
“I am a fan of (Gov.) Ned Lamont’s. I think he is a bright spot in our government now,” Wood said. With that remark, the room went quiet, she noted. “…He listens, he is willing to build consensus, he has reached out to Republicans. He genuinely wants to know what people are thinking.”
“I was extremely impressed (by Lehman) and I do feel he is going to be looking at how we are going to be more successful and bringing in businesses to our state,” Dathan said.
Four contracts have come before the Appropriation Committee, regarding four groups of state employees who want to join a union and have their pay and benefits adjusted under the 2017 SEBAC (State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition) contract, Lavielle said. She predicted six more groups will come forward during this legislative session.
The employees will, in the coming two years, get an 11 percent raise and a $2,000 one-off payment. Assistant Attorney General managers will get a $6,000 bonus in the first year and $12,000 in the second, she said.
That’s 14 department heads, according to a March 27 CT News Junkie report that the “stipends are on top of 3.5 percent wage increases and 2 percent ‘step’ increases over the next two years for all 200 assistant attorney generals. The total cost of the award is $3.3 million over the next two years.”
“It’s very hard to imagine anybody in the private sector getting guarantees like this,” Lavielle said Thursday.
The state workforce is 13% smaller than it was eight years ago, the “the smallest workforce per capita since the 1960s,” Duff said.
The 2012 and 2017 SEBAC contracts save $20 billion each over 20 years, and the assistant Attorney Generals haven’t had a raise in 20 years so they decided to unionize, he noted.
“So, while yes, if you speak about their raises over the next two or three or four years, it does seem high but consider the fact that they haven’t had a raise in 20 years, and the fact of the matter is that those assistant Attorneys General bring in hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the state through lawsuits that they settle, from around the country,” Duff said. “… There’s a number of ways we can spin this. Would it have been better for the legislature to provide raises over the last 20 years? Of course it would have been. We didn’t do it. So they unionized.”
For whom the State tolls
Tolls are part of a larger conversation about how the state will fund infrastructure improvements going forward, Perone said, observing that the issue has been a political football for years but this time, there are concrete plans moving forward.
The Transportation Fund is going bankrupt and revenue is needed to make it self-sufficient because “we can’t drive on crumbling roads to get to crumbling schools because that’s what’s going to happen,” Perone said.
The budget that Republicans wrote two years ago to initial bipartisan approval, before being vetoed, would have funded the Transportation Fund, O’Dea said. Lamont planned to take car sales taxes out of the Transportation Fund, a $300 million hit, he claimed.
Steinberg said the Yankee Doodle Bridge is the most deficient bridge in the state, a local impact of what everyone agrees is a “real problem.”
“The only diversions that are going on here are the misdirections that I’m hearing from the Republicans on this subject. We must do something now. This is not about the Special Transportation Fund, because frankly, if it was solvent it wouldn’t have enough money in it to meet the needs.”
“I support tolls in concept. I want to see efforts to stabilize our economy first,” Wood said.
“Too often, the politically expedient thing to do, and the thing that legislators have done for decades, is fail to make an upfront investment,” Haskell said. The freshman senator said that there’s bipartisan agreement that Connecticut’s infrastructure needs to be updated.
Out of state drivers will provide 40 percent of the toll revenue, and Connecticut residents will get a discount due to technology, he said. “I view it as an issue of generational justice.”
Carey asked the legislators for yes and no answers on tolls. The results:
- Wood: “Yes, but not now.”
- Steinberg: “Yes.”
- Lavielle: “Not right this minute.”
- Haskell: “Yes.”
- Duff: “Depends”
- Dathan: “Yes.”
- Perone: “Yes.”
- O’Dea: “No.”
He asked if they thought the legislature would approve a budget by the scheduled end of the session.
- Wood: “No.”
- Steinberg: ”Yes.”
- Lavielle: “I cannot tell. I don’t know.”
- Haskell: ”Yes, I’d like to.”
- Duff: “Yes.”
- Dathan: “Yes.”
- Perone: “Yes.”
- O’Dea: “Not a chance.”
Are they in favor of legalizing marijuana?
- Wood: “No.”
- Steinberg: “No.”
- Lavielle: “No.”
- Haskell: “It does depend.”
- Duff: “Yes.”
- Dathan: “I’m on the fence.”
- Perone: “No.”
- O’Dea: “No.”
The Judiciary Committee last week approved three bills that would legalize possession of cannabis for adults 21 and older and expunge prior drug convictions, according to a CT News Junkie report.
“It’s a bad idea from head to toe, I am fully opposed to it,” O’Dea said. The Republican believes it won’t help small business – and that should be a measure for every proposal – and “the bill is full of holes.”
Employers can’t fire people for testing positive for marijuana because habitual use results in higher blood levels and you can’t tell when someone has been smoking, he said, relating stories he’s heard about Colorado.
“Back in college I smoked… but what we’re talking about now is not your grandfather’s marijuana. This is a genetically engineered plant,” Steinberg said. He’s “concerned and alarmed” that the bill hasn’t come to the Public Health Committee, which he chairs.
Colorado’s experiences should be “incredibly cautionary to us,” he said. “Recreational marijuana may be inevitable – all the states around us are going to do it – but we must do it the right way to protect people. And I am not sure any legislation I have seen so far comes close enough that I can support it.”
Lavielle agreed with Steinberg on his idea regarding process. “I think this is irresponsible to be doing something like this just for revenue,” she said.
Marijuana stays in the bloodstream for 30 days, which makes it difficult to tell if drivers and workers using heavy machinery are under the influence, she said.
“I am concerned what message we are giving our young people,” Dathan said. She’s concerned about research which shows brains are not fully developed before a person is 25 years old and there may be a social cost to widespread marijuana usage.
“The is a very serious issue,” Duff said. “… Do we control our own destiny here in the state of Connecticut or, since other states around us are legalizing recreational marijuana do we have others go to those other states and buy it, and then we are not controlling our own destiny?”
He’d never support a bill that allows people to grow it themselves, he said, and he believes much can be learned from Colorado’s experience with legalization.
“If we are passing this as a revenue source for us going forward, when you consider the fact that all the other states around us are also passing it, you get market saturation,” Perone said. “I think eventually you have sort of a race to the bottom.”
Point-counterpoint, take II
Asked about teachers pensions, Lavielle said that there’s a proposal to stretch out the payments on bonds from the Rell administration from the expected 12 years to 30 years.
“That adds a cost,” she said, tagging that as $17 billion. Discounting it back to present value would make it $2 billion but “that’s if you believe that that money would be earning 6.9% for the next 30 years, which I don’t,” she said.
Previous legislatures and governors ignored the issue for 50 years, and that’s why there are huge cliffs, Duff said. In his view, no one can afford a $6 billion cost in 2032 and therefore the costs need to be amortized.
“The state’s annual contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System is about $1.3 billion, but it could top $3.25 billion to $6.2 billion by 2032, depending on different experts, because of decades of underfunding. Connecticut didn’t start setting aside money to pay for teacher retirements until around 1982,” according to a CT News Junkie report.
The state employee pension is going up $100 million a year, Lamont is quoted as saying in another CT News Junkie story.
Duff said Thursday that he’s open to the idea of towns taking on part of teacher retirement costs because Connecticut is one of a few states that pays the full boat on pensions and “we are only talking about of up to 25% of the teachers pay above the statewide average.”
“You can’t talk about structural reform in the state if every idea is a bad idea,” Duff said. “You have to say yes to something in order to make sure that we are making the decisions in order to grow our economy long term.”
“Yes, you do have to say yes to things,” Lavielle shot back. “Listen folks, being the minority party for 40 years, you come up with a lot of proposals. And you say yes to all of them because you came up with them…. Sometimes you have to say yes to those proposals as well.”