Republican Pankaj Prakash is running against Democratic incumbent Kerry Wood to represent the 29th state House district of Newington, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield.
Prakash came to the U.S. from India to study for a graduate degree at the University of Connecticut. He works as a data scientist at Raytheon and teaches data science and analytics courses at UConn’s School of Business. He has served on Rocky Hill’s Town Council since 2019.
“I’m proud of my heritage as somebody from India, as an Indian. I have my roots in India. My parents are Indian. I’m proud of that, but I’m even a prouder American at this point, because I think this country has been really good to me. And one of the reasons I’m running [is that], as an immigrant, I want to continue to give back to the community.”
Prakash shared how his work as a data scientist would affect his approach to developing and measuring programs and their outcomes. He emphasized tax relief through a series of mechanisms including changing tax brackets, occupancy taxes on hotel guests and eliminating the sales and meals taxes. He also talked about his desire to modify the Paid Family Leave program so that it would be less of a burden for small businesses, and his belief in school choice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CTEx: What are your priorities if elected to the Connecticut state legislature?
PRAKASH: My vision, if I want to summarize it, is about affordability, tax relief, quality of life and investing in our communities. Those are the four pillars of what I want to do in the legislature. From the affordability and tax relief point of view, those two go together.
Tax relief in my view is about immediate relief as well as the long-term structural events. If you think about immediate stuff — expanding the gas tax holiday, [reducing or eliminating the diesel fuel tax], that’s one, for sure, we can do immediately. We can reduce the sales tax from 6.35 to 5.99 and eliminate the meals tax. I think it’s at 1%.
We can also, as the winter arrives, expand the eligibility to the energy assistance program for families. We need to help people pay for home heating because that can be a real crisis. I don’t think anybody should not agree with it. I just feel like it’s a no-brainer. People will need it.
Hope is not a strategy. Gas prices are what they are. They are not going to go down from $6 to $2 like they were last year. So I just think we should plan for this and as the winter arrives, people should have coverage. Nobody should be freezing in their homes.
Then if you talk about the long-term stuff: we have to think about, how did we get here? We had three big tax increases in 2011, 2015 and 2019. It all adds up to probably $5 billion. Close to it.
We had all these increases and then we had a tax cut this year, which is kind of small compared to the tax increases we have had over the years, so you have to think about it in the bigger context. It’s great we were able to do something this year because we had a surplus and I welcomed that, but I think we could have done more.
What I’m suggesting is from a long-term perspective — number one, I think, is property tax relief. This year the property tax exemption on your state taxes — it was at $200, it was brought up to $300. I want to bring it up to $500. I think we should do that because property taxes are huge. This is really important for Rocky Hill, and to a certain extent for Wethersfield. We are a hundred percent dependent on property taxes. We don’t have any other sources of revenue. The state won’t allow that, basically.
One of the things I have been proposing is, I would like the state to allow towns like Rocky Hill to levy occupancy tax on hotel guests – not on the residents, but hotel guests. We are off I-91 and we have lots of hotels and if we can levy occupancy taxes on hotel guests, we could raise several hundred thousand dollars in revenue. That would make us less reliant on property taxes and have some flexibility.
Other states are doing it, allowing it, clearly. I think we should look at it much more seriously than we have in the past, if we have ever looked at it. I’m sure other towns will sign up for this if they were allowed to do this.
The tax burden on seniors, that’s a big one. I know there were some changes this year, in terms of retirement income being exempt and being phased out. I would see that limit go higher because as you can see, we have this inflation right now and a lot of seniors are out of luck if this keeps going up. So I want to raise it. I would propose $150,000 for seniors married filing jointly instead of the $100,000 today.
Index income tax brackets to cost of living adjustments and inflation, so the CPI basically. I think that is something which is a very data-oriented approach. We have to do it smartly, but I think we should be putting in provisions like this.
What gets measured gets managed. We need to streamline government operations by using more data analytics and AI measuring outcomes — I’m talking about outcomes of the state programs. For example, we have a program, let’s say, for home heating. Who uses it? I’m sure there are like annual reports, but I’m not just talking about a bunch of numbers, like ‘Hey, this many people use it, they come from these demographics.’
I’m thinking about going beyond that — what was the original intent of the bill? How is it being used as opposed to the original intent? Can we make some changes? So measuring outcomes is important. And I think that will help us eliminate duplicate functions, move money from one program to the other, that kind of stuff.
If it was up to me, I would have a chief data scientist in the state. I’m not saying create another office, I’m saying it can be done in DECD. It can be done in the auditor’s office. I’m sure there are plenty of people in the state government today who have data science skills, data analytics skills, who can do this work. The question is: how do you frame the work? It’s not an auditing job. It’s not looking for fraud. It’s looking for measurement of outcomes.
CTEx: How do you think the state has done in its attempt to balance green energy goals with the rising cost of gas and electricity?
PRAKASH: The regulatory aspect of it is concerning to me. There needs to be a balance, in terms of looking at our green energy goals for addressing climate change.
One way I think we can go in this direction is with nuclear energy. Now, people have concerns with nuclear energy because they think it’s dangerous and nobody wants it in their backyard. But I do think nuclear energy is one of the options which we haven’t looked at.
I’m an incrementalist. I don’t want a bunch of regulations on the books for the next three years. I want it slow and steady and to measure as we go. For example, what regulations are having what impact? While we measure the impact of the regulations we have already on the books — we should look at things like nuclear energy as well, and hydroelectric — and make them part of the renewable side of things, right? For tax incentives and credits for taxes. Those are some of the things we can do.
Again, competition is the key in a lot of these cases. We have certain problems with the pipelines right now. We are dependent on natural gas, I think, for the most part. On the state level, I think I would look at nuclear more closely and look at doing it in a safe way.
CTEx: What do you see as the state’s role in providing housing?
PRAKASH: Housing should be a local issue, in my view. Should we make housing more affordable? Yes, we should. And Rocky Hill is a great example of that, by the way. We have a great mix of single family and apartment housing, which is not low-income housing as people think of it. It’s affordable housing. People who don’t want to buy single family homes, they can be in apartments and condos.
This is really close to my heart because I started in a condo. I could have never afforded the house I live in today in 2009. I was just starting out. I got a condo in Rocky Hill. And that was right within our range, we were a small family of three. Our son was just born. That way, I was able to get a starter home and I was able to build that equity. And I got comfortable. After seven years, I bought a single family house. I think most people want to do it that way.
And I think we should provide opportunities for people to have that. So if you want to be in an apartment, you want to be in a condo, if you want to own right away on a smaller level, on a more affordable level, you start there. And so it’s a great opportunity. So I’m for a mix of development, but I will leave it up to the local planning and zoning boards.
Will I encourage them to do it? Yes, I will. But it should lie with the local zoning boards, because that’s the approach we have taken in Rocky Hill, and that works for us. We as a town had an increase of 6% in population, the highest in Hartford County. We had a 9 percent increase in the Asian population. And the reason for that is that we have condos and apartments. There are a lot of people, high-skilled people who work in Hartford who want good schools, affordable housing. So they pick Rocky Hill. There is a reason they’re attracted to Rocky Hill, and we are growing our population.
CTEx: What are your priorities and goals for improving educational outcomes for students in Connecticut?
PRAKASH: I think education is the most important thing you can do for a child — giving them a good education —and in a lot of cases we are failing to do that in a lot of our towns and cities.
I’m for responsible school choice. I think there should be more of that. For example, Rocky Hill spends around $17,000 per pupil, and among our peer group we have the lowest spending and highest scores. We are in the top two, I think. We are able to do that because we have a Board of Education and we have a Town Council which invests in schools, but also holds people accountable for outcomes.
Education is one of the big sectors, important sectors that we are lacking competition. I think public schools do a great service — I mean, my son goes to a public school and I would not do it any other way — but I think there are people who need school choice.
So I’m for promoting school choice in a responsible way, where needed. If your town does not need school choice, you don’t have to take it. If you ask most of the parents in Rocky Hill if they want to go to private school, they don’t. I think probably less than 1% do.
But if there is a town where there’s a need for school choice, I’m for providing that school choice, in terms of private schools. I’m for school choice as a solution, [but] to look at it responsibly —- not to cut our public school system, because that’s where people go when you propose this. I want to be careful about that. But I do believe that a lot of our schools need that competition of school systems.
CTEx: What are your key priorities for improving healthcare affordability and accessibility for residents?
PRAKASH: I think some of the childcare costs and healthcare costs are very much related to the personnel — the workers who work in this industry. There is a demand and supply gap in both of those sectors. Especially talking about healthcare, I do think there are ways to look at fixing that gap.
Healthcare is a prime example because even before COVID, but especially after COVID, healthcare workers are burned out. There are two issues. The first one is definitely about recruiting and retaining and having enough personnel. A prime example of that is the nursing shortage.
One of the programs I looked at is in Washington State, and I think it can be a good model program. They call it the nursing delegation program. Essentially what it does is it allows the licensed nurse practitioners to hire folks who are actually trained to go into senior facilities and nursing homes to provide routine preventative care.
It’s not lowering the licensing requirements — because healthcare is not a place where you want to lower those requirements, you need to keep that standard up. But at the same time, for things that are more routine, because you have [more] people doing those things, the nurse practitioner is able to pay attention to more urgent matters.
I think we can use a pilot program. I’m a huge fan of pilot programs because that’s how my mind as a data scientist works. Especially in things like the nursing idea — that has to be a pilot program where we start with a smaller group of senior facilities and systems and things like that and say, “Hey, does this work?” And if it works, we can expand it.
Number two, we do have to look at hospital mergers as a priority. I’m not saying that all mergers are bad. I just want to make sure that they are working for the people from a cost perspective. Are they actually doing what they’re supposed to do — which is to reduce costs?
CTEx: What are your thoughts about the Police Accountability Bill? Is it doing what it was supposed to do? Are there things you would change?
PRAKASH: It was something I did not advocate for in the form it was proposed. There were reforms that were put in recently, which were put in through a Republican initiative, and I support those initiatives.
I think we have made progress toward reforming that original bill. Is [the law] at a place where I feel 100 percent comfortable? No, I don’t, because many families in Rocky Hill and Wethersfield still don’t feel as safe as they should in their home. And there are multiple reasons for that.
I think there has been an approach to this where we tend to talk a lot about the effects of the crime — in terms of why it’s happening or is it happening or data to support it, but we don’t talk enough about how it affects the victims.
I think we are not doing enough to actually take care of the priorities of the victims. I think [expanding] the Victims Fund is a good [idea]. We need to look at this as a holistic problem, but we can’t look at it like it’s just one or the other — victims or young people.
For example, you can look at young people and say, “Why is it happening?” Is it lack of opportunities? Is it they don’t have jobs to go to? Is it a workforce development issue at a certain level?” So I’m all for providing opportunities for young people, enhancing workforce development, creating jobs to help young people not even turn to crime like this in the first place. But at the same time, we need to ensure that we hold individuals accountable for their actions, especially the repeat offenders.
CTEx: Were there pieces of the law itself that you think needed to be changed?
PRAKASH: [Eliminating] the qualified immunity. I definitely think that was a misguided approach. That was the most glaring one.
CTEx: What do you think about marijuana legalization? Do you think the law is adequate the way it’s written? Does it address social equity issues? Are there changes in the regulatory framework that need to be made?
PRAKASH: I think that it needs to be monitored and we have to look at the data. Parts of it were well-intentioned in terms of social equity and things like that. But in terms of how it plays out, I need to look at the outcomes.
Some of the things we can look at right now, from a social policy perspective —- like how Colorado is doing. This data is going to take time to collect. I understand that. But I think that what we can do is, once we start collecting data on this, on the actual law, we need to also incorporate some of the changes that make sense from other states. There might be things that we need to address more urgently than not. So what I’m saying on that issue is, essentially I need to wait and look at the data.
CTEx: What other issues are important to you?
PRAKASH: I support paid family leave as a principal. I think we need to ensure continued access to paid family leave for young families and caregivers without imposing financial burden on employers. That last part is very critical. I think strong families, individual responsibility, those are the pillars. But then if you go beyond that, what helps those strong families? As a conservative, I believe in strong families more than anything. I mean, everything starts there. Many multi-generational families like mine are taking care of their children and families at the same time.
It’s something which people need, it’s clear to me.The program has been in existence for five months and 500 people in [Rocky Hill and Wethersfield] have already applied for it.
For me it’s really an economic issue as well. Not just an investing-in-our-community issue. So you invest in your communities, but at the back end, you get a lot of these benefits in terms of workforce development and workforce retention and morale.
The second part of this is that we need to do it responsibly. And my concern on this is essentially, how do we do it without placing more burdens on the employers? And one category of employers is the key here: the small businesses. We need to be responsible for the needs of those small businesses.
Right now [the program is] for everyone. Maybe that’s not something which is workable practically. I mean, it’s a great idea. It’s well intentioned. But it’s just making the program more affordable for businesses to support. I think you need to incentivize small businesses to offer this to their employees through some form of tax credits.
CTEx: Where do you see yourself in today’s Republican Party?
PRAKASH: I would consider myself a moderate Republican —- a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I think that would be fair to say.