Getting government to commit to infrastructure repairs and quality services for veterans — and looking at new ways to pay for them — generated animated discussion by Connecticut’s U.S. senators at a Hartford forum Friday.
Called “Dialogue with the Delegation,” the program hosted by the Metro Hartford Alliance and the New England Council at the Hartford Marriott drew about 150 people from the business and non-profit sectors and gave them the chance to submit questions to Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy.
Both senators expressed frustration with the gridlock that has stymied movement of bills in Congress.
The state and nation’s aging infrastructure is a major concern for many of its members, said James T. Brett, president and CEO of the New England Council. Blumenthal agreed, adding that he fears leaving to the next generation the problems that have been ignored for years.
On Thursday, Metro-North railroad service to New York was delayed when a swing bridge over the Norwalk River was stuck open for five hours.
“That bridge is 117 years old, it is the only one across that river and it serves the busiest railroad in America,” Blumenthal said.
New sources of revenue to make necessary repairs have to be explored, Brett noted. “There needs to be a serious discussion of the possibility of increasing the gas tax,” he said.
Murphy agreed; earlier in the day he had called for greater investment in infrastructure repairs with changes to the federal gas tax. Generally, for every dollar Connecticut pays in federal gas taxes, it receives $1.68 in federal transportation spending. “It’s either that or we just keep borrowing money,” he said.
Blumenthal, though, while saying he would be willing to entertain almost any proposal to fund infrastructure repairs, added that “there are more realistic ways to do it. We need ways to finance this that are palatable to both Republicans and Democrats.”
Military downsizing and shake-ups at the federal Veterans’ Affairs department promise to strain an already stretched system. If plans for military downsizing go through, Blumenthal said, about a million military service personnel could be leaving the service over the next five years and they will need education and training.
Many veterans already are going without needed services, and Blumenthal noted that U.S. Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had resigned in Washington on Friday.
Shinseki had been under fire in recent weeks after reports that veterans in some states often waited months for treatment and some had died while waiting for medical care.
While saying Shinseki should be respected for his military career, both he and the American people were deceived by administrators under him, Blumenthal suggested.
“We need to turn around veterans’ care and reduce wait times,” he said. “We are going to have some huge challenges.”
Within the state, officials have tripled the number of housing vouchers for veterans, reducing the number of homeless vets by about 30 percent, Murphy said. He was reminded that many need critical services when he recently met a veteran in Waterbury who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could not find work. She and her 8-year-old daughter were forced to live in their car at one point, Murphy added.
The changes in military staffing and at the VA offer the chance to rethink how money for conflicts is allocated, according to Murphy. He said he could not understand why the VA and Department of Defense operate independently of each other. “When there is a war, we should be saving every dime to protect soldiers in combat and take care of them when they return and pay for it,” he said. “Then we might think more about the overall cost.”
Military downsizing means the U.S. role in the world is changing and intervention more often will take the form of economic sanctions, Blumenthal said.
“The American people will not tolerate another major land war,” Blumenthal said.
Sanctions are showing success in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Murphy noted, as Russia is starting to pull back its troops and Ukraine is moving toward independence.
“What we learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that blunt military force does not change the political scene in areas we don’t understand,” Murphy said.
On another battlefield, both senators said they are weary of the struggle to get bills passed. “It is frustrating to work in a system paralyzed by political partisanship,” noted Blumenthal.
Unfortunately, the current system seems to reward dysfunction, Murphy said, acknowledging that he’s not happy with congressional approval ratings on par with gonorrhea.
“When I send out fundraising letters I raise more money when I knock the opposition than when I talk about successes,” he noted. “And we should be able to pass bills that the majority of colleagues support.”
Voters have to take some responsibility as well for breaking the logjams, according to Murphy. The public complains about extreme candidates, yet elects people who pledge not to work with the opposite party.
“You have to ask candidates their values,” Murphy said. “And then ask if they are willing to compromise.”