WINDSOR, CT — Seven of the Republican candidates running for governor squared off in their first debate of the 2018 election cycle and largely agreed they don’t like “career politicians.” But they offered mixed opinions about how they would handle the state’s budget and grow the economy.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, Bob Stefanowski, and David Stemerman were qualified under the threshold set by the Republican Party to join the debate, but did not attend. Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, who is exploring a run for an undetermined statewide office but not necessarily governor, was added to the stage an hour after the debate started.
Those on the debate stage included Stamford Chief Financial Officer Mike Handler, state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan of Glastonbury, David Walker, Peter Lumaj, Steve Obsitnik, Boucher, and Tim Herbst, a four-term former Trumbull first selectman.
The first of what will be five Republican Party debates before the conventions in May sought to give Republican voters an opportunity to hear how their party would begin to clean up what was described as Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s mess.
Malloy, one of the least popular governors in the country according to a Morning Consult poll, isn’t seeking a third term.
Republican candidates are hoping to capitalize on some of the anger over two of the largest tax increases in Connecticut’s history and a lagging economy that hasn’t recovered all the jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Earlier this week, Stefanowski joined Boughton in proposing to eliminate the income tax over several years, but not all of the candidates on stage Wednesday were sold on the idea.
“It is straight pandering. It is populism,” Walker, former Comptroller General for the United States, said. “We have to recognize the reality that spending is a problem.”
Handler said before the state is able to talk about cutting revenue or controlling spending, it has to bend the curve on the one-third of the budget going to pension and debt costs.
“Anyone who tells you they can eliminate the income tax right off the top is not telling you the truth,” he added.
Obsitnik seemed to disagree.
“Who here thinks taxes are too low in Connecticut?” Obsitnik said. “We need to hug our customers who still live here. We can do targeted tax cuts on day one. Day two we have to reduce the size of our state employee funding by 20 percent.”
He said Connecticut state employee workforce is larger per capita than that of the state of New York.
Connecticut’s executive branch employment — which includes all the state agencies — has 3,908 fewer employees than it did in 2011 when Malloy took office.
“Our jobs project for the past 30 years has been growing government and it doesn’t work,” Obsitnik said.
According to preliminary numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employment, which includes the employment at the two casinos, is down 24,200 positions since the recession began in March 2008.
Herbst said people should be honest about eliminating the income tax, but that people have to be honest about what it’s going to take to get to that point.
“We have a massive unfunded pension liability problem,” Herbst said.
The unfunded pension liability is mostly why Connecticut has struggled to balance its budgets. Malloy committed to paying the actuarily required contributions to the state employee pension funds and negotiated new agreements with the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) in both 2011 and 2017. Both agreements included increased state employee contributions to their pensions and healthcare costs. The 2011 agreement created third tier of employees with reduced benefits, and the new agreement in 2017 created yet fourth tier, which includes a hybrid defined contribution/defined benefit configuration for the first time, rather than just a defined benefit.
“An unfunded pension liability is code language for future tax increases,” Herbst said.
He said Connecticut has to get its pension costs under control before it can talk about reducing the income tax, eliminating the estate tax, and reducing the corporation tax.
Lumaj said he’s not going to discuss the problems the state faces, “because everyone of you knows what the problem is with our state — career politicians.”
“Here’s what we have to do,” Lumaj said. “Spur growth. Without spurring growth we’re never going to get out of this mess.”
He said he would repeal the income tax for all families making less than $100,000 a year.
He also suggested lowering the 6.35 percent sales tax and the 9 percent corporate tax.
“We don’t have problems with revenue in our state, we have problems with spending,” Lumaj said.
Srinivasan said saying “no” to eliminating the income tax is “like saying no motherhood or apple pie.”
He said they can eliminate the income tax in a logical way. He said the state has a revenue and a spending problem, and people are leaving the state and taking their money with them.
Srinivasan said the state needs a “constitutional spending cap.”
The bipartisan budget that Srinivasan voted against included a definition for a spending cap for the first time since 1992. After the debate, Srinivasan said it wasn’t restrictive enough for him and that’s why he voted against the bipartisan budget.
Srinivasan was one of 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats to vote against the bipartisan compromise in October.
“The present leadership doesn’t have the moral authority to do what is right,” he said during Wednesday’s debate.
Lumaj said the Srinivasan only voted against the budget because he was running for governor.
“That was a calculated move,” Lumaj alleged. “And you and I should be tired of these calculated moves these politicians are making.”
Boucher said the state really needs to take a look at tax policy because over the past seven years the two tax increases have caused more residents to leave the state and added to the state’s fiscal problems.
“What we really need to do is reduce the costs for all businesses,” Boucher said.
She said they wouldn’t need to expand casinos if they reduced the costs for all businesses in the state.
But she reminded the more than 300 in the audience that the only way they’re going to change what’s happening in Connecticut is if they have a candidate who can win.
“There’s probably only one of us who is proven they can win,” Boucher said referring to herself. “… at the end of the day all good plans fall on deaf ears if we can’t win.”
Connecticut is considered a battleground state, as far as control of the General Assembly is concerned.
In the Senate, the Democrats have seen their majority slip from 24-12 after the 2008 election to an 18-18 tie. House Democrats, meanwhile, held a 114-37 margin after the 2008 election, and have seen it dwindle to 79-72.
In the last several elections, Republicans have made gains in both chambers, including drawing even in the state Senate in 2016.
There are currently 22 candidates vying for the Republican nomination for governor and at least six on the Democratic side.
The governor’s race is currently being considered a “toss up” by the Cook Political Report, which changed its outlook on the race in June.
“Solidly blue Connecticut seems an unlikely place to host a competitive gubernatorial contest, but the state’s economy is in tough shape as companies like General Electric and Aetna decamp to more business friendly states and the state budget is $5 billion in the red. Republicans will be very competitive here,” the report found.