Lakeville Journal: HVRHS auditorium filled for state candidate debate

First appeared in the Lakeville Journal on 10/17/2018 here.

By Patrick L. Sullivan

FALLS VILLAGE — A crowd of more than 400 people came to Housatonic Valley Regional High School on Friday evening, Oct. 12, for a debate among the four candidates for the Connecticut General Assembly for the 64th House District and the 30th Senate District.

The original site for the debate, Room 133, has about 200 seats; all were full and there was a line stretching down the hallway by about 6:15 p.m. 

The group was then moved to the auditorium, which has 373 seats downstairs and 155 in the upstairs balcony. Both areas were mainly filled.

Republican incumbents Brian Ohler (R-64) and Craig Miner (R-30) faced Democratic challengers Maria Horn (for the64th) and David Lawson (for the 30th). 

Horn, from Salisbury, is a newcomer to politics. Lawson, of New Milford, ran unsuccessfully against Miner in 2016. 

Ohler, from North Canaan, is finishing his first term in the state House of Representatives; Miner, who was first selectman of Litchfield before serving eight terms in the state House representing the 66th District, is completing his first term in the state Senate.

The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and The Lakeville Journal. The moderator was Pat Donovan from the League. Questions were from Journal Executive Editor Cynthia Hochswender; Housatonic student Soren Clulow; and from the audience.

After each candidate delivered a brief opening statement, the questions began.

Clulow asked the candidates what skills they possess to make them effective legislators.

Miner said he is able to communicate “with both sides of the aisle.”

“We had some things to overcome last year,” he continued. Against a backdrop of contentious budget negotiations, he said he “spent the majority of my time trying to build bridges over concepts.”

Ohler said he relies on communication with his constituents.

“I take pride in my ability to bring Hartford to you.”

Lawson said in the course of the campaign he has knocked on thousands of doors. He pointed to his lengthy service on the New Milford school board, where, he said, it was possible to add programs while also cutting spending.

“I need to come to you, I can’t wait for you to come to me.”

Horn said she was “raised to believe that actions matter.”

She said her work as a prosecutor and with nonprofit organizations demonstrate her ability to solve problems, and added that she would prefer to deal with problems “holistically” rather than “one at a time.”

Economics

An audience member asked about regional economic development.

Lawson advocated for cutting taxes on small businesses and for regional economic entities, arguing that local groups are more familiar with the needs of the Northwest Corner than officials in Hartford.

Horn said a priority for her is infrastructure, particularly broadband internet service.

“Digital infrastructure is the road of the future.” 

She also said “duplicative” regulations on small businesses from both the state and federal governments need to be reformed.

Ohler said he got involved in politics after returning from his military service and observed that young people were leaving both the Northwest Corner and the state.

“It’s hurtful for me to see businesses dry up.”

He said that economic development can be very slow, with each town having a planning and zoning commission and unique set of regulations to navigate.

He urged further investment in technical and vocational education.

Miner said that for a fraction of what was spent on the Hartford-New Britain busway, a regional bus line could have been established in the Northwest Corner. He said business leaders in Torrington have told him there are between 400 and 500 jobs unfilled in that city.

He also criticized weight limits on trucks, noting what is an illegal load in North Canaan is legal in nearby Massachusetts.

Weapons

An audience member asked if the candidates would support a ban on firearms created with 3D printers.

Ohler, Lawson and Horn all said yes.

Miner was skeptical, saying he has used guns since he was a teenager and has never seen such a weapon nor heard of anyone who had one.

He said that most gun crimes in Connecticut go unprosecuted. “We need to stop allowing criminals to escape penalties,” he continued. “Chasing the issue of ‘ghost guns’ is not going to help.”

There were rebuttals during this question. Ohler said a “working group” of legislators of which he is a member has met with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, school superintendents and police chiefs, among other groups, on the question of school safety

“Nobody has said that guns are the number one priority.”

Rather, the emphasis has been on mental health and the need to “reconnect with students.”

Lawson said he would prefer to proactively ban 3D guns rather than react to an incident involving one.

“We must stay on top of this.”

Horn said any discussion of school safety must include guns.

Miner said that any legislation must be carefully drafted. He said that under current law, Connecticut police officers who seek mental health treatment must do so out-of-state to avoid being disqualified from owning firearms.

Bears

The Journal’s Hochswender asked about what can be done about the increasing number of bears in the Northwest Corner.

Lawson said part of the problem is the budget for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection  (DEEP) keeps getting cut.

He advocated for relocating bears rather than destroying them whenever possible. He noted that there has been a bear in his yard and he feels that property owners need to try and live in harmony with them.

Miner, seated next to Lawson on the left side of the stage, went next and got the first laugh of the evening: “Now I know where to have them brought.”

He said that Massachusetts wrestled with the problem and wound up having a bear hunting season.

Then, he said, “The bears came here.”

He said he favors a restricted bear season. “It’s as much about the safety of the bears.”

Horn said Northwest Corner towns need to practice better waste management, and pointed to recent efforts in Salisbury to use bear-proof trash receptacles.

Ohler said in his talks with DEEP officials, he learned that bears have learned to forage in garbage, rather than in Nature. He endorsed a “limited management season” for the safety of people and the overall health of the bears.

Health insurance

An audience member asked about health care for people whose premiums have risen faster than their incomes.

Miner said the situation has stabilized somewhat but noted that state employees making good money continue to enjoy generous health insurance plans with low co-payments.

He recommended reforming that practice and using the savings to help businesses insure their employees.

Horn pointed to “sabotage at the federal level” as the reason for increased insurance premiums and recommended that the requirements in the state’s Husky B plan be expanded. She also dinged Ohler fo voting against a study of the proposal.

Ohler noted that fewer insurance companies are participating in the Affordable Care Act and its Connecticut version, resulting in less competition. He said he is focused on the Legislature’s Insurance Committee. “Let’s bring them to the table.”

Lawson said, “One of the problems with private insurance is their objective is to make maximum profit.”

He urged finding economies of scale by opening the state’s health insurance plan to municipalities and school districts.

Revenue and budgets

An audience member asked if Connecticut has a revenue problem, a spending problem, or both.

Lawson said, “Certainly we can’t tax our way or cut our way” to a solution to the state’s fiscal problems. 

He said a growing state economy is critical, and urged “investing in our students.”

Lawson noted that $2 million was cut from the vocational and technical education in the last state budget.

Ohler (who is on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee) said, “We do not have a revenue problem.”

He said the two recent tax increases were “billed as a way to address unfunded liabilities” of some $80 billion.

“In the same six-year period, state spending was up 22 percent.”

Miner said he thinks it’s politically possible to make changes in state pensions. 

On the spending side, he said not counting overtime into pension payments could save $100 million.

“I can’t imagine taxing someone more is going to help us.”

Horn said the fiscal problems won’t be fixed by ending the state income tax, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski has advocated.

“We are in a mess. Eighty percent of our problem is what’s owed to people we’ve made promises to. We’re going to have to look at every single thing we spend money on.”

Attracting young people

Clulow, the HVRHS student, asked how the candidates would make the Northwest Corner more attractive to young people, especially recent college graduates.

Lawson suggested a student loan forgiveness program that he compared to the postwar G.I. Bill. He said it would require recent graduates to stay in the state for a period of five to seven years.

Ohler said he wants to “motivate Millennials to become more involved.”

He added that he wants to help create jobs that pay $50,000 to $75,000 per year, not $10 per hour.

Horn pointed to the need for affordable housing in Northwest Corner towns and said that the bulk of people have not benefited from the post-Great Recession recovery.

“There’s a disconnect; we want young people to stay here, but we don’t pay them enough.”

Miner said that young people tend to be attracted to urban areas, and noted the increasing number of Millennials who do not drive.

He said the state should stop taxing gifts to children, so parents could help their recent graduates pay off their student debt or buy their first home.

Climate change

An audience member asked about climate change and the environment.

Horn said she is committed to the idea of the state using 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. “We need to get ahead of the curve.”

Lawson said of climate change, “It is real, it is here. We need to educate our students.”

He also urged the funding of an air quality station to monitor the Cricket Valley energy plant in New York state.

Ohler said he believes New England can achieve independence from fossil fuel use by 2030, and endorsed the idea of the air quality monitoring station.

Miner said there has been no interest from DEEP for additional monitoring. He said that both solar and wind energy are “very expensive,” and said the high cost of energy is one reason that manufacturers do not stay in the state.

He criticized the use of flat farmland for solar panels because it uses up land that is suited to agriculture. He said there are other ways to use solar panels without using up farmland.

The forum wrapped up at about 8:40 p.m. A video of the event is online at www.vimeo.com/robinhoodradiotv/videos.

MediaMeghan FlanaganMedia