The state’s three gubernatorial candidates jousted and clashed on a number of issues — taxes, healthcare, abortion rights, education, housing, to name a few — in a forum hosted by NBC and Telemundo Connecticut on Tuesday.
The debate kicked off with a question to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont about Connecticut’s $6 billion surplus and how it should be used, as Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling waited to jump in.
Lamont said the state was going through “a world of hurt” with $2 billion in annual budget deficits when he first took office in 2019.
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“We held the line on spending, we held the line on taxes and we got the budget balanced just barely, but we got that budget balanced,” he said. “[I was] the first governor in 40 years not to raise income tax rates.”
He said that after four years with a balanced budget, “instead of talking about deficits, we’re talking about surpluses and what you do with that surplus money.”
The state is going to continue to pay down the unfunded pension liabilities, Lamont said, which would save about $450 million a year, “a tax cut for your children and their grandchildren.”
Stefanowski said that he would give half of the surplus back to the taxpayers. He said the surplus was the result of Lamont raising taxes by $2 billion his first year in office, plus $6 billion from the federal government.
“So what we’re seeing is basically a shell game of our federal tax dollars. being shifted to the state, and it’s unconscionable that we’re sitting on $6 billion when people are out there right now only filling half of their oil tank because they need food.”
Stefanowski said the state sales tax rate should be reduced and the diesel tax, which Lamont increased, should be suspended until the end of 2023.
Hotaling said he agreed with Lamont that it was important to pay down pension debts, but some of the funds should be used “to close the achievement gap and make strategic investments in our infrastructure.”
“I would also ask everyone out there to consider more efficient technology,” especially in ways to lower oil and gas costs, he said.
On health care and this year’s increases in health care insurance rates, Stefanowski said higher costs were choking small- and medium-sized businesses.
“One of the things we need to have is more competition. Yale and Hartford Hospital have a monopoly in Connecticut right now,” he said. “We need to work on the surprise billings that you get when you go to the doctor and he’s out of your network and you’re shocked with how much it cost. People are struggling. Businesses are struggling. Nothing has happened in the last four years.”
Hotaling said that all basic health care should be a right, not just a privilege.
“I really think we should expand access to community health centers and our school based health services. I understand that they operate on the ability to pay with a sliding scale,” he said. “We also need to have the right measures of success for hospitals that shouldn’t be strictly based on financial performance, but actually health metrics.”
Lamont said his administration was working to hold the line on pharmaceutical costs. He agreed that more competition was needed, but it was not necessarily about “busting up Yale New Haven and Hartford.”
Stefanowski said healthcare and insurance costs had risen every year and questioned whether the trend would change if Lamont were reelected.
“Competition is not breaking up Yale and breaking apart Hartford hospitals – it’s having more centers springing up. It’s controlling the price of prescription drugs, it’s being more diligent about the billing for other network costs. We haven’t done it over four years. Why would you suddenly think Governor Lamont is going to do it over the next four years? It’s been up 20% a year. He’s the one who’s been in charge. Why would you think it would change? We’ve got a fresh plan, a new approach. We’re gonna get costs down.
Lamont and Stefanowski clashed on abortion rights, each accusing the other of using scare tactics.
Stefanowski said Roe v. Wade is codified in Connecticut state law and that, if elected, he will protect a woman’s right to choose. He said Lamont had been “lying for four months about my position.”
“I can’t say it any clearer – I’m going to protect a woman’s right to choose. I don’t know what else I can say,” Stefanowski said.
He told Lamont, “You shouldn’t be trying to scare the women of Connecticut that it’s going to change when I win. You really should stop it and you should focus on the economy.”
Lamont said Stefanowski had donated funds to Republican Leora Levy, candidate for U.S. Senate, who pledged to outlaw a woman’s right to abortion access.
Lamont told Stefanowski, “I think you’re scaring the women of Connecticut. Actions speak louder than words, Bob.”
Stefanowski responded that his donating to a candidate’s campaign does not mean he supports every position of that candidate. He pointed out that Lamont had donated to Steve Bullock, former governor of Montana, a Second Amendment “hero” who opposes universal background checks.
On education and the statewide teacher shortage, Hotaling said Connecticut is a “tale of two cities” with some of the best high schools in the U.S. and the “worst achievement gap in the nation.”
“ECS is a failure. There’s no other way of putting it. And the reason is that because it’s based on property and income, when really ought to be based on student outcomes. The best metric attributable to a successful student inner city, specifically Hartford or Bridgeport, is classroom size and student teacher ratio. So I would propose to change it and I know how to to make sure it’s based on actual student outcomes.”
Hotaling said he would put surplus dollars toward closing the achievement gap in the cities.
“We have a school to prison pipeline in Connecticut. We need to retain and recruit teachers, especially in the inner city – they are underpaid, they’re overburdened, and we really need to help them.”
Stefanowski stood behind his proposed “Parental Bill of Rights” which would limit sports for transgender children.
“We need to be totally tolerant of kids going through that difficult decision. But I fundamentally believe it’s unsafe for biological males that compete against a girl in high school. I don’t think it’s right. The majority of Connecticut agrees with me — that’s not extreme, that’s common sense. And we need to find alternatives for training to support them. But the way that the state is going is not the right way.”
On the issue of affordable housing – and state versus local control — Stefanowski said it was time to repeal the 8-30g statute.
“First of all, I’m very sensitive to this issue because I’m a product of affordable housing. I grew up off of Dixwell Avenue in New Haven in a three family house… This was the house I was born in. We didn’t want to leave New Haven but one day my dad came to me and said we need to move to a better school system.”
Stefanowski said his father bought a house in North Haven and he and his sisters grew up and went to college. “So I am the product of affordable housing, I know what it can do.”
But, he said every town is different and the statute’s 10 percent threshold does not work as a metric, especially when towns lose control over zoning decisions.
“When you have developers with 100% of the power coming in and putting skyscrapers next to Cape Cod houses and the local town has no say in it, which is where we are today, it’s not right. We need to find a common sense solution. I’m going to find it.”
Lamont said Stefanowski was “just making stuff up” about “skyscrapers next to Cape Cods so that locals have nothing.” Lamont said the state needed more housing so that the economy could grow.
“Every business leader says we need more housing, housing for single people, housing for teachers, firemen cops so they can live. I believe in local control. I want the towns to come up with what their housing plan is going to be — and most of them have — and those few that don’t, we’re gonna have to be strict with them… I really believe in local control. But we’re never going to get the state growing again with opportunity unless we have more housing in downtown areas.”
Hotaling said 8-30g had produced mixed successes, but disagreed with Stefanowski on repealing the statute.
“It can’t be repealed. We need to restructure 8-30g to level the playing field between towns and the developers,” he said.
Hotaling said the state needed to revitalize its cities to help solve the housing shortage.
“We need to make cities more attractive, bring people back. They have the infrastructure to support lots of people. We create great schools, bring cool jobs, young singles and families, great shops and restaurants, and you make them centers of attraction — the numbers in 8-30g might come down, but we definitely need to level the playing field with the restructure.”
Watch the debate here.