In the second half of Thursday’s Greenwich League of Women Voters debates, moderated by Kay Maxwell, six candidates for State Representative were asked about multiple issues ranging from funding state infrastructure to taxes, and from Black Lives Matter to abortion.
After the State Senator candidate debate between incumbent, Democrat Alex Kasser and Republican Ryan Fazio, respondents had two minutes at a time.
Connecticut’s attractiveness to small business and entrepreneurs.
Republican Kimberly Fiorello, who seeks to fill the seat being vacated by State Rep Livvy Floren (R-149) who is retiring, pledged to be a voice for small businesses.
Ms Fiorello said in many conversations with small business owners, she heard repeatedly that State taxes and regulations posed a burden.
“Connecticut’s past governors and members of the legislature have passed laws and taxes that have made Connecticut one of the most unfriendly states for business,” she said.
Fiorello said Connecticut’s government failed to create broad economic growth, choosing instead, “fancy programs that picked winners and losers, loaning out low interest loans, tax credits and grants to businesses.”
“Sometimes the best solutions are simple, like lowering corporate taxes,” she said.
Her opponent, Democrat Kathleen Stowe, who currently serves as the Board of Education Vice Chair, said the exodus from New York City to Connecticut offered an opportunity.
“Businesses come and stay where they’re welcome,” she said. “Just today my company I run with my father – we have 40 employees – because of this pandemic we are leaving New York. That would never have happened, because it’s a financial technology company. I think, as a State, we should be recruiting companies just like mine.”
“If it was about taxes, Jordan & Jordan would have moved here a long time ago,” she said. “It’s about talent. As people move here, that increases our talent pool.”
Republican Joe Kelly, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Steve Meskers in the 150th district, said he was an entrepreneur who currently runs two businesses.
“Nobody from the State has ever contacted me and said, ‘Hey can I help you in any way, shape or form?’ I pay my taxes and fees. I employed about 30-40 people last month, and basically I got no help from the State,” he said.
“I don’t care if I can pay 7% less taxes in other states, because I could take those businesses anywhere, but I love living here,” he added. “We have to lower taxes to some degree.”
“New York City is upside down right now,” Kelly continued. “We should reach out and say, ‘You should move to Greenwich – we’re a law and order city.'”
Steve Meskers said Connecticut’s fiscal situation is more robust than people believe.
“In the last four years we’ve attracted over $3.1 billion into our rainy day fund,” he said. “That rainy day fund should shepherd and marshal us through the next two years of the pandemic. But right now we’re sitting in an enviable position in the tri-state area.”
Meskers noted that over the last 10 years, Florida was the single largest destination for out-migration from Connecticut, but the combined following three destinations were to higher tax locations.
“So while taxes are a concern to me, it’s economic opportunity that’s going to drive this. That requires an investment in infrastructure and an investment in our failing cities, to attract those people. We’re beginning to see that now in population inflow to the State,” he said. “The surrounding tri-state area suffers a much more fiscal difficult situation than we’re in. I’m much more optimistic on where we sit today.”
Harry Arora, who won a special election for the 151th district in January, filling the seat vacated by Fred Camillo when he became Greenwich First Selectman, said, “I don’t think anybody doubts we have driven away businesses. On a net basis we have replaced high paying jobs with low paying jobs.”
“Remove onerous business regulation,” he said. “There’s a million laws out there, and I get calls every single day. ‘Can you help me with this? Can you explain how this works? What do I do if I want to open a barber shop?'”
Arora said Connecticut also loses competitiveness because of the high cost of living.
His opponent, Democrat Hector Arzeno, said Connecticut is in an excellent position with over 25,000 people moving into the State.
“It’s an opportunity with a solid and robust financial situation, with a surplus in the last fiscal year,” he said. “We’re attracting families and new companies.”
Mr. Arora disagreed. “Things are not excellent here, Hector. There are so many small businesses going out of business. …things are really bad. We’re drawing down our rainy day fund. We’re going to go into massive deficit really soon. Yes, the little bit of tailwinds we’re getting – let’s not get too giddy about it.”
“I agree things are difficult with Covid-19, but the State is in a very good situation to confront the cost that Covid-19 will have,” Arzeno replied.
A question about prioritizing the top three road infrastructure improvement needs in the next two years veered into a conversation about tolls and funding capital projects for schools.
Ms Stowe said the top priorities should be the trains, the Merritt Parkway, I95, bridges and roads.
She tolls had become a binary issue.
“We need to be talking about whether it’s something we should be considering,” she said, referring to tolls. “It’s something I’d certainly want to consider. And we had tolls in Connecticut all the way through the 1980s.”
Also, she said, “We should also be talking about private-public partnerships for financing our roads.”
Joe Kelly described I-95 and the Merritt Parkway as traffic nightmares that are bad for business.
“We need to address the traffic situations and fix the roads. How do we pay for that?” he asked, adding that tolls would be an added tax.
“If you have a lock box, and maybe only toll out-of-state truckers, and give exemptions to citizens who have to work…and replace other taxes with tolls, maybe it’s something we could work with,” he said.
Meskers said truckers damage the roadbed more than passenger cars and represent 25% of the traffic.
“We have to ask why we decided to leave our roads a multi-state charity for out-of-state users. It makes no financial sense,” he said, adding that there are roads and bridges, particularly in the rail system, in danger of collapse. “I’d have thought we had come forward with a more progressive look at the tolls situation with a concomitant cut in sales tax or the gasoline tax, so we could end up in a revenue-neutral situation, as it relates to Connecticut residents, and we capture revenue from out-of-state travelers.”
Meskers said there was a strong need to make Connecticut a transportation hub, including for air travel, to make the State more accessible and to attract companies such as Amazon.
Harry Arora talked about ways to finance infrastructure, calling for better capital allocation.
“We heard about the Bridgeport train station. We can’t afford it. It’s $300 million,” he said. “We approved a $200 million high school in Norwalk. It should have been $50 million, and it has an indoor swimming pool. I don’t think GHS has an indoor swimming pool.”
“We should attract better private capital,” he added. “We are building parking garages with State money. There’s no reason to do that. Not only don’t we need tolls, we can actually cut down that transportation debt.”
Mr. Arzeno, who volunteers at GHS as a tour guide, corrected Mr. Arora. “Greenwich High School has an indoor pool,” he said.
“Going to infrastructure, we have to be smart: private-public partnerships, better allocation of capital, long term leases of State assets, and commission of lottery and gambling will bring additional revenues that we have to use wisely,” Arzeno said.
On the topic of tolls, Ms Fiorello said she had mobilized residents to get to Hartford to testify against tolls.
She said the reason New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York have tolls and Connecticut doesn’t, is because CT receives $750 million from the federal government.
“We can’t do border tolls. These tolls would have to be in-state, to capture us,” she said, adding that creating tolls would take several years, cost about $300 million and result in an additional bureaucracy.
Mr. Meskers elaborated. “Am I in favor of tolls on residents of Connecticut? No. but I do not like running a multi-state charity,” he said. “When you want infrastructure, someone has to pay for it. It’s either going to come out of your tax revenue, or it’s going to be funded from third party sources.”
“As for the new high school in Norwalk, P-Tech, I am concerned about the dollar price of school,” Meskers said. But, he said, it is an internationally acclaimed program in conjunction with IBM, and provides access to higher education for more vulnerable members of society, to become productive members of society.
“We should support that,” he said. “That’s why I voted in favor of the bill.”
Mr. Arora said Greenwich Schools need modernization and capital allocation from the State is poor.
“We don’t get a proper hearing in the current one party legislature,” he said.
Mr. Meskers noted Greenwich received generous funding allocations for Hamilton Ave School and New Lebanon School.
However, as for educational cost sharing, Meskers said Greenwich does not receive its fair share due to the State’s attempts to balance out inequality across Connecticut school districts.
Joe Kelly agreed, saying, “It’s disturbing that Greenwich and Fairfield county – for every dollar we pay, we get pennies. That’s ridiculous. We have to defend ourselves and make sure we get our fair share.”
Ms Stowe said the average age of Greenwich schools is 1954. “I really want to get some more funding back to Greenwich for our public education system.”
Mr. Arzeno said he fully agreed. “I support any amount of capital and resources we can get for our Greenwich Public School system.”
Black Lives Matters
Following a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the State, the moderator asked the candidates how they would ensure the voices of under represented groups be included in the legislative process.
Mr. Kelly said that as a GHS sports coach he went out in the middle of the night if necessary to find lost kids, help kids with problems and even became the legal guardian for a student for several months.
He said as a coach he created an environment where everyone’s voice was heard.
“Everyone matters,” Mr. Kelly said. “But we have to focus on those that need it the most at any given time….I touched those kids and lived that life of working with people who need help.”
Meskers said unfortunately Black Lives Matter had been politicized.
“The statement Black Lives Matter is an acknowledgement that we have a persistent problem in the US of inequality,” he said. “We need to know not just that we are responsible to help an individual, but we have to move the arc in our community, and across our State to make this a place of equal opportunity.”
“(People) have to realize that acknowledging the issue that Black Lives Matter is an issue is because for 400 years in this country, they haven’t,” Meskers said. “It’s an overwhelming call to action that we have to be conscious of.”
“It is indeed a call to action,” said Mr. Arora, who went on to describe an accomplishment gap in education. He said came to the US as a student with no money or connections and credited his success to his education.
“Most of the accomplishment gap can be seen across districts where you have more African-American children,” he said. “We have to work to increase educational opportunity, to improving choice, to funding more charter schools where necessary – and they can be part of the solution.”
“High school graduation itself is related to so many good things. The statistic is quite straightforward. Why can’t we get that right? Racial justice is going to start with education…”
Arora said he had met racist people. But, he said, “Overall our system is not a racist system. I agree, this is not a political issue.”
Mr. Arzeno mentioned a recent community march. (Arzeno participated in the Walk for George Floyd, which was organized by students.)
“This should not be a partisan issue, but an issue where we all work together, where our minorities feel protected in the state and the country,” he said, adding that he was also a minority.
Noting that Greenwich included many minorities, he said, “I hope the State and country can take us as an example.”
Ms Fiorello said, “I wonder if I come at it from a different perspective. I feel profoundly that the founding of our country, the Declaration, that said all men are created equal, and even those men were all different, nobody is the same, but acknowledged they had a commonality and a natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s that founding idea that we continue to strive for.”
“Racism lives in the hearts of some people and you can’t legislate that away,” she continued. “The solution in Connecticut to racism is not more sweeping legislation that divides us and makes assumptions based upon the color of our skin.”
Ms Stowe said she believed the Black Lives Matter movement made many people aware of racism in society.
“I went to some of these peaceful protests with my children,” she said. “Education is often the answer. I know in Greenwich Schools, for example we hired someone to come in and look at our text books to see if there were things in there inherently contributing to this in some way. We have to improve.”
On the topic of Covid, Representative Meskers said he would defer to scientists and praised Governor Lamont’s handling of the pandemic.
“The science that guides us gives us the quality of life we have today,” he said. “I think the Governor’s standards have given us some of the highest performance.”
“We’ll face it at the RTM where I sit,” he added. “We’ll once against be asked to vote on a measure about face masks. I just find it preposterous.”
Mr. Arora lamented the loss of over 3,000 lives of nursing home residents. He said he’d pushed for a three point plan, the elements of which he said were later adopted by the State.
Mr. Arzeno said Connecticut is recognized as a State that managed Covid in a highly effective way.
“We have to listen to the health specialists,” he said. “This is not a partisan issue. We shouldn’t debate what the science says.”
Ms Fiorello said, “My resource on where to go with Covid is my faith in We the People. I’m not sure why we’re okay with the Governor taking executive power for another five months. Other governors have extended their power month by month.”
“The people who know best how to handle Covid – whether it’s restaurants, businesses, families, schools or parents …the American way is that you trust the people to understand what’s best for them.”
“That would have been what we needed for the Connecticut economy,” Fiorello continued. “When it comes to Covid, as the legislators, we should err on the side of letting people figure out what is best for them.”
“When we legislate, and have big sweeping solutions, they can do a lot more harm, and there are unintended consequences, particularly with schools,” Fiorello added. “We are hearing so much more about the consequences of forced lockdowns.”
Ms Stowe, who is the vice chair of the Board of Education, said, “Lamont, our State, did a great job by being judicious, being careful, by wearing masks. I like how we opened slowly and re-evaluated. …a big part about opening the economy safely was opening schools… This was also a decision that was left to us, which was awesome. We surveyed our community, who said loud and clear that 83% wanted to go back to in person in school.”
“There were many communities that couldn’t pull it off,” Stowe added. “We worked all summer…Five weeks in – and things could still change – we had five weeks of school when many systems haven’t even opened.”
Mr. Kelly said as a BOE member he’d gone from receiving hundreds of emails a day about how to reopen school, to none, “which means, we got it right,” he said.
“Kudos to the Gov,” he said. “I think he made the right calls. The economy is weird. It’s a strange dynamic.”
“I run two businesses. They’re both doing much better than before, during this time that many are struggling,” he added. “I’m in the commodities business where one of the commodities is mining volatility due to shutdowns due to the virus. I’m on the hedging side of the business where we basically create the financial opportunities for buyers and sellers. My other business is a real estate development business. Boom time in Connecticut! It’s wonderful! I had a property in upstate and basically we started building like crazy, because all of a sudden you had demand out of nowhere.”
“How does that happen? How do you have so many in our State struggling and suffering, and so many not suffering and so many prospering? We have to look at those two dynamics, and when make our decision how to open up, we have to understand that not everybody is suffering. We have to use the opportunity of those who are not suffering and move forward in a cautious way.”
Roe vs Wade and a Woman’s Right to Choose in Connecticut
The last question of the night was, “Would you be supportive of codifying the protections of Roe Vs Wade and a woman’s right to choose in Connecticut’s constitution, should Roe vs Wade be under jeopardy under a new Supreme Court?”
Mr. Arzeno said simply, “Yes.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Mr. Arora who described Roe V Wade as the law of the land. “I don’t like second guessing Supreme Court justices. I don’t like speculating on these very important issues. To hypothesize what will happen if the Supreme Court takes it up, I don’t think we should go there…It’s very well supported and has a lot of precedent, and we want it to be that way.”
Ms Fiorello said Connecticut already had constitutional protections for women’s reproductive rights.
“It’s enshrined already in our State constitution,” she said. “That said, on the topic, there is another conversation we could have, as the mother of a son, a teenage boy. When we talk about unwanted pregnancies, we should also be talking to our boys about being responsible. It does take two. That is a conversation I would ask have my husband to have.”
“The conversation on woman’s reproductive rights, which is also about unwanted pregnancies, should include the men involved as well,” Fiorello added.
Ms Stowe said given the situation with the Supreme Court, the question could indeed come back to Connecticut.
“That’s where it’s important you understand where your state legislature would vote on this,” she said. “We will have control if people try to chip away at it. A woman’s right to make her own decisions is important to me.”
Mr. Kelly described himself as a good listener, and would listen to people before he formed an opinion.
“I think I’m allowed not to make up my mind,” Mr. Kelly said. “I’ve not been forced to have that conversation because it is the law of the land now.”
Mr. Meskers answered the question. “Yes, and more so.”
“What we’ve seen at the national level is a rollback in access to both health care and reproductive rights, whether it be abortion or birth control,” Meskers continued. “We need to reaffirm a comprehensive health care that protects a woman’s health, integrity and her right to choose.”