Holly Cheeseman was part of a wave of Republican state legislators elected in 2016 to the largest minority the party has had in the House in decades. But since starting her second term, Democratic gains have made it harder for her party to take part in the conversation up in Hartford, the East Lyme Republican said in a Thursday afternoon interview in the offices of CT Examiner.
“This time there’s such a greater majority that in some ways it’s very frustrating in that it’s hard to have our voices heard,” said Cheeseman, whose district covers East Lyme and Salem. “On the other hand, working on individual committees you are often able to get buy-in to your ideas and get things to move forward.”
Cheeseman said she opposes two high-profile bills floated by Democratic leaders for the upcoming session: one to levy tolls on tractor-trailers and another to legalize the retail sale of recreational marijuana.
Cheeseman said instead that she plans to support legislation to limit the cost of insulin and EpiPens, to support suicide prevention, to limit unfunded mandates on schools, to streamline the process for licensing businesses, and to require businesses to accept cash as legal tender — a measure that would make it more difficult for abusive partners to track personal spending.
She confirmed that she would seek election to a third term in November.
Supporting victims of domestic violence
Cheeseman was one of eight sponsors of a 2019 bill that would have prohibited any person or business offering consumer goods from refusing to accept cash as a form of payment. The bill passed the House, but the legislative session ended before it could be brought up in the Senate. Cheeseman said she hopes to reintroduce the legislation and win the support of both houses in the coming session.
New York City’s City Council approved similar legislation to ban so-called “cashless” business policies less than two weeks ago, and Cheeseman said that Massachusetts has had this kind of ban in state statute since the 1970s.
Cheeseman said that the bill would help protect people who don’t have bank accounts, a common criticism of cashless policies, but she added that this fits into her own broader agenda of advocating for victims of domestic violence.
In an abusive relationship, said Cheeseman, bank card transactions can be tracked, leaving an opening for other invasive questions, and “if you have the ability to pay cash that removes it.”
Domestic violence is just one of several reasons her constituents might want to use cash, said Cheeseman.
“Certainly when you look at security, how many times do people get hacked or do businesses get hacked? And from a civil liberties point of view, if every transaction is an electronic one, then there is always a record of what you’ve done.”
Cheeseman said that she also plans to support legislation to remove requirements that individuals seeking temporary shelter or other assistance must disclose a spousal income.
“This would remove that requirement so that certainly for 90 days you could get the help you need without having to list the spouse and perhaps have them be contacted.”
Aiding startup businesses
Cheeseman said that the Republican caucus was planning to introduce legislation to direct the Department of Economic and Community Development to create a “one-stop shop for anyone who is looking to start a business, to make the licensing and permitting process easy.”
Cheeseman said that the process of starting a business in Connecticut is unnecessarily laborious compared to states like Florida.
“I had a constituent who, like so many people, left the state and reopened his business in Florida, and he said that he accomplished in Florida what had taken him weeks and months to accomplish in Connecticut, so I think we need to make it easier from an administrative point of view for businesses to open.”
Drug costs and mental health
Cheeseman said that she expects bipartisan support in the legislature for efforts to cap the costs of medications like insulin for diabetics and EpiPens for people with life-threatening allergies. Cheeseman said that the cost of insulin had risen dramatically in recent years.
“This is something people need to live,” she said. “The formulation hasn’t changed. Why should the price have tripled or quadrupled?”
Illinois passed similar legislation earlier this month to limit the out-of-pocket cost of insulin.
Cheeseman said she was also working with Ann Dagle, executive director and co-founder of Brian’s Healing Hearts, on legislation to increase support services for mental health in schools with a focus on suicide prevention.
“Sucide is the second leading cause of death among young people. It is such a tragic scourge and the ultimate heartbreak,” Cheeseman said. “To lose your child as a parent is unthinkable.”
The legislation would aim to “create better systems to identify people who are at risk and to know what the risk factors are,” Cheeseman said.
Against tolling and recreational marijuana
Democratic legislative leaders have proposed two new potential sources of revenue in the upcoming session, by tolling commercial tractor-trailers and by taxing the retail sale of recreational marijuana. Cheeseman said she would oppose both ideas, and said that the state should instead support transportation by cutting spending elsewhere.
“I think one of the reasons you’re seeing such adamant opposition to tolls is the total lack of trust that the residents of Connecticut have in their state government,” Cheeseman said. “They’ve been down this road so many times when this revenue source was going to be the answer to our prayers, and this is a real fear that tolls in any form will inevitably lead to car tolls and will inevitably lead to higher taxes or certainly no reduction in tax.”
On the local level, Cheeseman said she was also concerned that tolls on commercial trucks would lead to those vehicles exiting I-95 as they near East Lyme to instead drive through the town.
“We don’t want people getting off at Exit 70 and getting back on at Exit 75 with semis going down Route 1,” Cheeseman said.
Senate Republican leaders have proposed instead taking $1.5 billion out of the state’s reserves to pay down unfunded employee pension liabilities, and then use the cost-savings to fund transportation.
Cheeseman said that, if she was asked to make a plan, she would instead propose taking a smaller amount from the reserves and making up the rest of the difference in cuts to spending.
“If I were to devise a plan I would look at taking a smaller amount — maybe $500 million, which would free up let’s say $50 to $75 million [annually] once you’ve paid down those unfunded pension liabilities, and then look at a half a percent reduction in state spending.”
When it comes to recreational marijuana, Cheeseman said that the potential tax revenue to be gained would not be worth the added risks, and she expressed added concerns about marijuana’s impact on developing brains.
“We pass legislation at the capitol and say if it saves one life it’s worth it, regardless of the cost of administering it,” she said. “What do we say to the parent or the husband or wife or son or daughter when someone or tens of people are killed because we’ve legalized this. We’ve had parents come up to the capitol, who talked about not only losing a loved one to a drugged driver but also said this was the path by which their child went to addiction. I don’t see that the benefits outweigh the gains.”
Cheeseman said that she supported some of the social benefits of the legislation, without supporting legalization.
“I have no problem with expunging criminal records for low-level marijuana possession. I have no problem investing in our cities to create business opportunities, but there are better ways to do it than adding another intoxicant. And because we’ve decriminalized small amounts for possession, if people went to drive to Massachusetts, drive home, bring it home, and use it in the privacy of their home then they are free to do it.”
On the local level, Cheeseman said that she had heard from employers in manufacturing and other industries with significant federal contracts, that drug use among the region’s population scared them, because it could bar their employees from getting federal security clearance.
“Everyone who works there needs federal security clearance,” she said. “If you test positive once [on a drug test] you’re done. If we’re building the workforce for the future, how many people in the future will never have the chance to do it? And marijuana, unlike alcohol stays in your system. For job creation and workforce creation, we don’t want to tie one hand behind our back.”