At Thursday morning’s legislative breakfast at Caren’s Cos Cobber, the Greenwich Delegation – Republican State Reps Fred Camillo (District 151), Mike Bocchino (District 150), and Livvy Floren (District 149), and State Senator Scott Frantz – had to raise their voices to be heard by the standing room only crowd.
In fact, before the 8:00am start time, the modest parking lot at the restaurant was full and neighboring business owners were shooing people out of their parking lots.
When one attendee suggested the Greenwich delegation find a more accommodating venue, Mr. Bocchino said the delegation was not used to such a large crowd.
Camillo thanked thanked Caren Vizzo, owner of Cos Cobber, for hosting the event. “We call it the office, we’re here so much,” he said.
During intro remarks, Mr. Frantz talked about the Medicare Savings Plan Program.
“The Governor – Christmas is still here and the Grinch is still around – he vetoed the nearly unanimous vote by the General Assembly to restore the $54 million Medicare Savings Plan Program for seniors. We went back into special session a week ago, and voted nearly unanimously to fix that problem. We fixed it and yesterday the Governor pulled out his veto pen. I don’t know why. I think he’s a very angry person these days.”
Frantz said that with two thirds of each chamber, it is possible to override that veto.
Frantz said, always, the budget is the number one issue for the delegation, with transportation at the forefront.
He said about a month ago Transportation Commissioner James Redeker did a joint press conference with Gov Malloy, where he said the state’s special transportation fund, which is supposed to pay for infrastructure, maintenance and upgrades – $1.2 to $2 billion – is going to run out of funds in about 5 months.
“Yes, it’s the truth. How can that happen?” Frantz asked. “It can happen, if you’re deceptive in your budgeting approach and you raid funds and put the funds into general funds. You can do that in government accounting. The standards are very loosey-goosey.”
Frantz predicted there will be additional taxes for Greenwich residents and possibly the return of tolls.
Mr. Bocchino said deficit mitigation is a priority for the state.
“We have a sound economic platform that we want to put in place,” he said. “We’re starting to eliminate our estate tax. But there’s so much more to do. We’re far from a balanced checkbook and having good reserves in our bank account. We need to be smart about where our monies go, cut our spending and start to put our house back in order.”
“Individuals have left the state, which means their tax revenues are leaving as well,” Bocchino continued. It’ll take a while to create the foundation for the fiscal stewardship of the state of CT to move the state forward.”
Camillo said a bill from the Greenwich Delegation that pushed up the estate tax level found its way into the budget that pushed up the estate level. He said the threshold was at $2 million. “Now, it will be phased in over three years to match the federal level, which was $5.49 and is now about $11 million,” he said. “That will help keep people here.”
“The only thing that’s going to change Connecticut is bold initiatives,” Camillo said, adding that establishing relationships in Hartford and building rapport across the aisle led to the funding coming through for New Lebanon School. “There’s a lot more work to be done. The state is in rough shape.”
Tom Waurishuk asked whether there was a way for tax exempt schools like Yale University to pay more in taxes.
“Even coming down to Greenwich, where Paul Tudor Jones sold his campus on King Street to Brunswick. Can the Delegation do something about this? We have to do something about these exemptions.”
Frantz said for the last decade Yale has worked with the mayor of New Haven to make payments to the city. “It’s not a huge amount it’s about $6.5 million a year,” he said. The feds tax the endowment income over 230 billion, it’s a small tax, but they do it.”
Bob Sloane asked why the Old Greenwich railroad bridge construction project was going “painfully slow.”
State Rep Bocchino said the project may appear to be going slowly, but it includes redoing the railroad over pass, making the rail lines able to carry more weight and removing the two buttresses under the railroad bridge.
“It’s a difficult project because when Metro-North has a delay or issue, they have to stop the work,” he said. “The winter months are also problematic. Although you don’t see physical work being done, there is work being done behind the scenes.”
Bocchino said that by spring/summer 2018 the last stanchion will be removed from under the bridge.
When asked about funding the state transportation fund through highway tolls, Camillo reminded all that the tolls were removed after a crash at the Stratford tolls in 1987 that resulted in seven deaths.
“Without a lock box, you put tolls up there, what’s to say they won’t grab the revenue from that again?”
Dick York from Glenville said we have to start reducing expenditures. “We have got to get the size of our government down. That’s aggravated by the new tax bill and the amount that I can no longer take off my federal taxes because Connecticut taxes are not deductible – It’s extreme. We have to look to you to get the entire state budget smaller.”
Mr. Frantz agreed and said the Greenwich Delegation has fought to get what it can for the Town.
“It’s the federal delegation you have to speak with on that,” Frantz said. “In the same way Greenwich is viewed a certain way in Hartford, we send out about $1.1 billion to Hartford. We were down to a return of 0. That’s less than one penny on a dollar that we get back. We’re losing a substantial portion of our tax base.”
Livvy Floren said the state’s overtime charges are being scrutinized. “There is a new report released about overtime. It’s exploding. Overtime goes into the state employees’ pensions. We have people retiring at age 40 with a pension of $250,000,” Floren said, to a chorus of gasps.
Karen Hirsh, president of the PTA Council said it remains to be seen how the state Supreme Court ruling on Educational Cost Sharing will play out in Greenwich, but asked the delegation to fight for Greenwich in terms of unfunded education mandates.
“Please remind them that Greenwich, even though we’re in the Gold Coast, we have a very mixed population and they should not be using our funds to pay for every other places in Connecticut. …We need those funds desperately.”
Lastly, with regard to fields, Hirsh said the state is dragging its feet on a response about remediating Greewnich’s fields.
Bocchino said he’d spoken the previous day with First Selectman Tesei and is hoping to schedule a meeting with town departments, the Greenwich Delegation, and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about what needs to be done to remediate fields at middle schools as well as field 6 and 7 at Greenwich High School.
“Talks are going to start,” he promised.
Chris Hughes said he is an owner in a manufacturing firm in Massachusetts that needs a larger space. He said he’d like to relocate the company to Connecticut.
“Is there a plan to reverse the attitude and and bureaucracy against manufacturing? ” he asked. “There’s a great labor base here, good skilled people, but it’s as though the state doesn’t want us to move here.”
“You’re hitting the nail on the head,” Frantz replied. “Having been involved in economic development since 1993, you learn about every complaint. States and bureaucracy take forever to change. Even if you have a change in leadership, it takes forever to work with DEEP… It’s endemic to the way these institutes are in operation.”
Frantz said common complaints include regulation, cost of doing business, the state’s tax structure and a “mismatch of employee skills to jobs.” Right now they can’t find people to fill these jobs,” he said. “We have no choice but to focus on that.”
“We are working hard to get you a work force,” said Rep Floren. “We spent a lot of money on bonding for our technical high schools and community colleges.”
Karen Fassuliotis asked about getting rid of regionalized gas prices, saying she gets her gas in Port Chester, and that Norwalk is even cheaper.
“Once that gas is in the pipeline, it’s not going to cost more as soon as it comes to us,” Floren replied. “Our upstate colleagues won’t even hear about it. ‘That’s your problem not ours,'” she said.
Camillo said upstate colleagues were afraid that if they voted for to get rid of regionalized gas prices, their gas prices would rise. “But we did get it out of committee about 7 years ago, and when we went to vote on it, someone had tacked on Sunday hunting to the bill, which made it dead,” Camillo said.
A physician from Old Greenwich asked the legislators about funding for Planned Parenthood.
“In April, Trump signed a law that allowed states to determine whether they will receive federal funding for Planned Parenthood,” she said. “Over 80,000 poor women receive very excellent health care from Planned Parenthood. Would you support legislation to defund Planned Parenthood in the state of Connecticut?”
“I don’t think there is a bill up there,” Camillo said. “If there is, I would not support it.”
The other members of the delegation also said they would not support a bill to defund Planned Parenthood.
Patrick Servidio tried to bring up “the coup against Trump.”
“Sorry, Patrick. We’re not going down that road. We’ll deal with that after,” Bocchino said.
A small business owner asked why Greenwich can’t be a hub for an industry. For example, she said Philadelphia is automation hub, and Colorado is a marijuana hub. “What is being done?”
“Instead of being scattershot, we’re trying to do hubs. We have a bio technology hub around the UConn Health Care Center in Farmington, and a financial hub in Stamford. We’re trying to attract clusters of industry and then provide the workhorse they need on site.”
Mr. Frantz said that for at least 30 years, the state has made an effort to provide financing – particularly in low interest loans – to companies.
“The only problem is Connecticut is going the wrong way in terms of regulation, tax structure, and the balance sheet is terrible. People look at that and say, ‘I don’t want to be any part of that.'”
Frantz said Governor Malloy has been the most aggressive on the economic development of all the governors he has worked with. “He has a lot of interesting companies coming to Connecticut, but on the other hand he’s let the balance sheet fall apart and let the cost of doing business rise.”
Bob Brady from Riverside asked about fees for gasoline and transportation. He asked about Save the Sound license plates. “I know governors don’t like special funds. What does it take to protect those funds from statutory raids?”
Camillo said the Save the Sound license plate funds had been raided, but a stop was put to that. He said people laughed at him when he floated the idea of a bill that would preclude raiding dedicated funds.
“People laughed. Even on our side, at some point you’re going to raid something,” Camillo said. “It was one way of saying, we don’t want to raise taxes, we’ll just grab it and no one will see it for a while. …If you did that in the private sector you’d go to jail.”
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The topic of early voting was raised by Molly Columbo. “Would you support legislation to provide for early voting in Connecticut as a way to increase voter participation?”
“Maximum voter participation is paramount to a good democracy,” Senator Frantz replied. “We always do whatever we think in our judgement that will increase participation. …but to allow them to vote six weeks in advance, you start to get in trouble. Within a real reasonable amount of time – two or three days before an election, absolutely,” Frantz said.
“Regarding voting NPV (National Popular Vote) what are your stances,” asked Cathy Steele. “What are the chances of getting it to the floor?”
“There is absolutely no political appetite for that right now,” Floren said. “And this being a short session, I don’t think it will come up.”
However Floren noted that Secretary of State Denise Merrill will be at Eastern Middle school on Sunday night and pointed out that she in charge of all voting matters.