State Legislators Share Views on Current Issues, Future Outlook
From left are Toni Boucher, Laura Devlin, Bob Duff, Tony Hwang,
Brenda Kupchick, Cristin McCarthy Vahey and Steve Stafstrom.
Unlike many recent heated sessions in Hartford, the discussion conducted at Sacred Heart University recently among a panel of state legislators was relatively cordial. The topic was “Connecticut at the Crossroads: A Conversation About the State’s Present and Future,” with Lesley DeNardis, director of SHU’s Master of Public Administration Program and executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, moderating. (IPP).
Panelists included State Sens. Toni Boucher, Bob Duff and Tony Hwang, and State Reps. Laura Devlin, Brenda Kupchick, Cristin McCarthy Vahey and Steve Stafstrom, all of whom represent communities throughout Fairfield County.
Gathered in the Frank and Marisa Martire Business & Communications Center Forum, the panelists had 10 minutes to discuss the poll results on key issues such as the state budget crisis (the longest in Connecticut’s history), the state’s economy and quality of life/cost of living.
This was the first event in a planned discussion series about Connecticut that SHU is hosting in collaboration with the IPP and GreatBlue Research, a Connecticut market research firm. The intention is to foster meaningful dialogue outside legislative confines, according to DeNardis. “We are indeed at an inflection point in our state’s history,” she commented in her introductory remarks. “The decisions made today will affect policies going forward for years to come. We all desire to see the state thrive and have a flourishing economy.”
DeNardis cited polls that found Connecticut compares unfavorably to other states in social, fiscal, governmental and economic indicators. More specifically, she shared, the state has the second-highest tax burden in the nation, third-highest per capita pension liability, third-highest property taxes, third-highest rate of outmigration among the 50 states and sixth-highest cost of living. It also ranks last in fiscal health and job creation.
DeNardis offered highlights from GreatBlue Research, which polled 1,000 Connecticut residents Oct. 3-12, learning that one out of three feel quality of life has declined, and more than three out of five are having difficulty maintaining their current lifestyle. GreatBlue will continue to conduct these polls in conjunction with the IPP going forward on a quarterly basis.
“I’m not surprised at all by the findings,” Devlin said. “We’ve always been a high-cost state, but jobs and salaries counteracted that and it all balanced out. Companies are now leaving. There’s clearly a recognition that we have a problem. Having a spending cap and bonding cap are key. The budget’s not perfect, but it’s heartening that it was bipartisan.”
“We were reliant on income from Wall Street that hasn’t come back (since 2008 when the economy cratered),” said Duff. “We’ve had to really work hard to compete for jobs. Compounding this, debts have not been properly paid down over the past four years, and we haven’t been investing in transportation and higher education. We need to continue to pay down debt, spend in proper ways and focus on growing jobs.”
Hwang was more critical, noting, “The numbers are unmistakable. Like the Giants this year, they’re bad. We are not doing the job we need to do for the people of this state. We spend too much, tax too much and are not transparent in how we govern. We have also not been predictable, swinging one way, then another—a roller coaster ride. We have not built a system that’s organically sustainable. We are competing with a worldwide marketplace.”
“There’s a whole lot of blame to go around. Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s governments are working successfully. The state that used to be called Taxachusetts is now Massachusetts again. It’s going to take bipartisanship. I’m willing to reach across the aisle,” Kupchick said.
McCarthy Vahey took an organic view. “We need to create relationships and leverage our resources. We have a gap between people trained and ready to go and jobs that are available. We need to build on the strengths that we have…rather than focusing on our frustrations. We have to have a long-term view.”
Stafstrom cited three main state issues: debt, the transportation system and ignoring cities as economic drivers. “I’m glad we have a budget clause to pay down debt when surplus reaches a certain threshold. It takes forever to get anywhere you go, jobs are concentrated in Hartford and Stamford, and it’s difficult to access airports. Connecticut has been left flat-footed while other areas have reinvested in their downtowns,” he said. “Connecticut also has a reputation of being boring, with an old Yankee mentality; there’s the cost of living in our cities, and property taxes by far are the most onerous in the country.”
Boucher concluded panelist remarks, saying, “The Connecticut I grew up in has changed markedly. We have our head in the sand and a wait-and-see attitude. Meanwhile, we’re in a Category Five financial hurricane. Tax policy does drive the economy and drives people out of the state. We need to spend less and tax no more. It’s time to stop being partisan.”