Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Republican debate (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

FAIRFIELD, CT — Can Connecticut really afford to eliminate the income tax?

With the days winding down toward the Aug. 14 Republican gubernatorial primary, the five candidates on the ballot offered differing views on that question as they worked hard Tuesday in a debate to make their position on taxes and state spending stand out from each other.

All the candidates said they would cut taxes — but how and when were the subject of some biting give-and-take.

The candidates debating at Sacred Heart University in front of a crowd of 130 were Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, businessmen Bob Stefanowski, David Stemerman and Steve Obsitnik and former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst.

Stefanowski and Stemerman skipped the convention and petitioned their way onto the Aug. 14th primary ballot for the Republican governor nomination. Herbst, Obsitnik and Boughton received enough support at the May convention to automatically earn a spot on the Republican primary ballot. Boughton was the convention’s endorsed candidate.

The two frontrunners, according to most political observers, Boughton and Stefanowski, received sharp criticism from Stemerman and Herbst at Tuesday’s debate for stating that they plan to eliminate the income tax if elected.

Stemerman said Boughton, as mayor of Danbury, and Stefanowski in private business, “for decades have made promises they couldn’t keep.”

“The idea that we are going to eliminate them [income taxes] is a fantasy. We need to not reform but restructure,” Stemerman said.

Stemerman has a plan to restructure the pensions, and wants to reduce the income tax brackets from seven to three.

Herbst chimed in: “No one has show how you are going to close a $5 billion budget deficit. I am in favor of eliminating the income tax but I’m not going to increase other taxes to make up it.”

The state, which spends $20 billion a year, generated $10.725 billion in the fiscal year that just ended, more than in other years because of the sunsetting of a federal tax loophole, according to Chris McClure of the state budget office. McClure said forecasts call for the state to tax in $9.7 billion this coming year, $9.8 billion the following, and $10 billion a year after that. The next governor will face an estimated $4.6 billion deficit when he takes office in January.

Boughton said Republicans need to “embrace the idea of eliminating the income tax.”

Boughton said his plan “phases out the income tax.”

“We want to put that money in your pocket and have you go out and spend it on some small business in Connecticut,” Boughton said. “This is an opportunity, not a crisis, to right size, downsize. Sure it’s going to take take take. Sure it’s going to be difficult but let’s put a big goal out there.”

Stefanowski’s take on the issue: “Not only can we do it [eliminate the income tax], we have to do it. Before 1991 we were the fastest growing state in the country,” Stefanowski said.

“We have to right-size government,” Stefanowski added. “It’s too big, it’s bloated. We don’t want anymore leaders saying it can’t be done.”

Obsitnik said that while he would go after “targeted tax reform” if elected, a big part of the debate should be on spending.

“We have a spending problem. We don’t have a tax problem” Obsitnik said.

He added that of all the Republican candidates he would best be able to build a consensus tax cut and spending reduction plan with the General Asssembly.

Why? “I’m the best listener and leader of the candidates,” Obsitnik said.

“It’s politically convenient to talk about eliminating taxes in a Republican primary. But two plus two doesn’t equal five,” Herbst added. “Two plus two equals four.”

Whoever emerges from the Aug. 14th Democratic and Republican primaries will face off against each other November, seeking to replace Dannel P. Malloy, who announced earlier this year he would not be seeking a third, four-year term.

The debate also centered on issues concerning how Connecticut’s aging population could afford to live here and whether or not tolls are needed. All five are opposed to tolls.

Stefanowski, who appeared in only his second debate since joining the Republican field, once again came under fire, particularly from Herbst, for his voting record, or rather lack therof.

Stefanowski didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election. He did vote in the Nov. 7, 2017 municipal election, but before that he hadn’t voted in his hometown since Nov. 5, 2001. In addition to not voting, Stefanowski was registered as a Democrat in his hometown until July 27, 2017 when he changed his registration and announced his candidacy for governor.

“Why did you become a Democrat three weeks before election,” Herbst asked Stefanowski. “Why did you not vote for 16 years.”

Herbst also threw in a new dig. “Why did you give [former Democratic U.S. Sen.] Chris Dodd a maximum contribution when he ran for president?” He asked Stefanowski.

Stefanowski ignored Herbst’s prodding, instead throwing in his own dig at Herbst, claiming the former Trumbull selectman brags about decreasing taxes twice during his years as first selectman but doesn’t mention he raised them seven times.

“You know Timmy, I know you have never had a real job in your life. In the time I was overseas, you raised taxes seven times,” Stefanowski shot back at Herbst.

The debate was moderated by Hearst political reporter and columnist Ken Dixon. It was sponsored jointly by Sacred Heart, WSHU, and Hearst Connecticut Media.