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State legislators opine on pot, tolls, budget at Norwalk forum

From left, State Reps. Jonathan Steinberg (D-136th) and Gail Lavielle (R-143), and State Sen. Will Haskell (D-26) , participate Thursday in a Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.

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.

 

Economic development

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.

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) speaks Thursday in the DoubleTree Hotel as Harey Carey listens.

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.

 

Point-counterpoint

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.”

 

 

Lightning round

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.”

Lightning-round

 

Marijuana

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.”

10 comments

Sue Haynie April 15, 2019 at 6:55 am

Duff, NOT sticking up for Norwalk taxpayers again. ….”Duff said Thursday that he’s open to the idea of towns taking on some of the 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.””

Memo to Senator Duff, Norwalk already has some of the highest property taxes in Connecticut and our house values are stagnating.

Pros & Cons April 15, 2019 at 7:57 am

@Sue Haynie Connecticut is also one of the few states that decided NOT to have teachers participate in Social Security which means some retirees not eligible for Medicare. Also means teachers who may be eligible for Social Security through other work have their benefit reduced due to federal GPO/WEP. Context matters.

Piberman April 15, 2019 at 9:54 am

Neither the Governor nor his “Team” have expressed any major understanding of why CT’s economy has remain stagnant for an entire decade. Excessive taxation at state and local levels and depressed major cities not participating in the hi-tech Computer revolution. One has only to look at Mass and NY to see the major characteristics of powerful State economies. Each has vibrant computer oriented modern cities and world class hi-tech universities public and private. CT has just Yale, a few defense firms and the wealthy Gold Coast dependent on NYC. CT is basically a suburban economy lost in the modern age. That’s why our children leave CT to secure better futures elsewhere.

CT’s part time Legisalature and State Gov’t neither recognizes the origins of our economic demise nor has any plan passing professional muster for relief. Plus we’re forever handicapped with our antique composition of 169 towns and cities. Few readers of Nancy’s will see their children live in CT or they themselves will retire here. But CT has demonstrated to the nation the consequences of imposing high local and State taxes to maintain among th nations’ best paid public Unions. That’s no mean example

Kevin Kane April 15, 2019 at 10:05 am

Smoke meet mirrors. Mirrors meet smoke.

Curious to see what Bob’s analysis and what Norwalk’s plans are to deal with the timebomb coming from his associate, Ned Lamont. That would be what the Pension Push Down
http://goodmorningwilton.com/breaking-news-gov-announces-pension-push-down-plans-would-hit-wilton-hard/
“Lamont’s budget will propose the following:
• Each municipality or local Board of Education will assume at least 25% of the normal teachers’ pension costs that have until now been paid by the state. [The ‘normal’ cost is the current year’s pension obligation,
• Towns with teacher salaries above the statewide median will be asked to pay a share equal to each percentage point they are above the median
• Distressed municipalities will be capped at 5% of their associated normal costs
If the governor’s proposal passes, Wilton might be looking at between $1.75 million-$2.5 million in additional obligations from pension sharing costs alone.

Have a look: http://goodmorningwilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ct-teachers-salaries-by-town-trs-contribution-data-pbalderston-analytics.pdf
Wilton is in for a doozy but already having proactive meetings. What is Bob and Norwalk Town Hall doing? Especially considering Norwalk has the 5th highest average salary $97,164 – a full 23.5% ABOVE the median. Note Wilton is 3rd at $98,594. Norwalk’s Total Pensionable Salary is $92.5 Million, not quite triple Wilton’s. If Wilton is staring down the barrel at $2 Million, Norwalk is what, $5-6 Million?
Would be curious to see what Mr. Simms said….oh. Wait. He wasn’t there.

I’d like to see more investigative reporting on some of these numbers and scenarios then get Harry’s plans or what-if-scenarios for what is likely coming.

By the way, if the transportation fund is insolvent in what some say is 7-8 years, it seems tolls will allow us slow the bleed while not adding incremental funds to the infrastructure. Glad to hear the fundamentals of present value was in the mix. What were Dathan’s and Duff’s thoughts on borrowing against future toll revenues?
Lamont continued: “Once we get approval to get these gantries up, once they know we’re going to be able to do our electronic tolling, we can borrow against those anticipated tolling revenues.”
https://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Here-s-how-much-CT-highway-tolls-could-cost-13757566.php
So before we get a penny for tolls, that clown wants to borrow against said revenue stream. You can’t make this up folks….

John ONeill April 15, 2019 at 10:43 am

Kevin Kane: That is a great analysis. I’d like to hear Lucy Dathan’s opinion on your points. If she’s a NancyonNorwalk Reader, I’d be interested in her view. I welcome Bob Duff to chime in as well.

Patrick Cooper April 15, 2019 at 3:20 pm

Perhaps the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and the moderator Harry Carey was trying for a “friendly” atmosphere, and sure – you would expect a COC to focus on business development.

I wasn’t there. If anyone was – can you tell me – was there a single question about cutting costs – about improved efficiencies – about challenging state agencies to do more with less?

Why are only business and families – when pressed with falling “revenue’s and increased expenses – able to find savings? But never government – never CT.

Have we become so conditioned that we no longer even ask?

Bob Welsh April 15, 2019 at 3:30 pm

Nancy’s spreadsheet of answers from the “lightning round” has some amusing responses. For example, Gail Lavielle’s answer to whether or not the estate tax should be repealed was “Yes-terday”.

@Patrick

Harold’s excellent video, at the bottom of the story, captured the whole forum.

Victor Cavallo April 15, 2019 at 6:17 pm

It is so disheartening to see that one of our few Republican legislators admits to being an ardent “fan” of a demonstrated political adversary of Republican principles, and that both Republican legislators are in favor of new taxes in the form of tolls.

This is truly political twilight zone territory.

What’s the point of our 25th Senatorial district Republican legislators continuing to be registered Republicans when they’re busy pretending to be Democrats?

Republican campaign contributors and voters need to know before the next elections.

Another Opinion April 15, 2019 at 8:55 pm

I agree with Victor. Why are the Republicans on the panel equivocating on tolls? Their answers are not reassuring and somewhat disappointing. This should be a “NO” without reservations. Lamont scammed the voters on tolls and now the Republicans on this panel appear to be being played by Lamont’s charm offensive. Connecticut must do better and tackle structural problems/cut spending and hold the line against tolling.

EnoPride April 16, 2019 at 8:44 pm

Senator Duff’s answer “Yes” to the question of should recreational marijuana be legalized is a head scratcher. Isn’t Norwalk one of the CT cities suing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma over the marketing of its drugs which have fueled CT’s opioid crisis? So Duff’s city is suing a company which has promoted and turned a profit on an addictive drug responsible for hooking users who in some cases go on to die, but Duff is onboard to legalize and promote the selling of another addictive drug which in lots of cases hooks users onto addiction to heavier drugs like OxyContin, all in the name of maybe/maybe not boosting CT revenue? How can Duff be against one but for the other? His reasoning as to why he is a “Yes” is reasoning of a herd mentality. He questions that if the other states are doing it, then shouldn’t we, to control our destiny? Interesting point of view and choice of words coming from a Senate Majority Leader of a state which seemingly has no control of its destiny economically anyway with its negative GDP growth rate which Mr. O’Dea points out. Duff’s home city has a negative ROI, gigantic, rotten building at its center which has become a symbol of uncontrolled economic destiny and poor leadership.

Maybe Senator Duff should be asking himself, from a humanitarian perspective, at the expense of whom will we be legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana to generate a relatively measly amount of revenue for CT? Anybody who has tragically lost a loved one or acquaintance to overdose due to substance abuse knows all too well that in many cases, marijuana is the gateway drug which opened the door to these people gradually getting hooked on harder drugs, prescription or otherwise, like OxyContin and Heroin, which then led them down a path to serious addiction and/or death. Making a gateway drug even that much more readily available seems like a disaster in the making. I truly hope Senator Duff rethinks his vote.

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