WEST HARTFORD, CT— It’s the first major gubernatorial debate of the season after a bruising five-way Republican primary, but Republican Bob Stefanowski wasn’t quite ready to fit Democratic nominee Ned Lamont and petitioning candidate Oz Griebel into his campaign schedule.
There was no empty chair left on stage at the Hoffman Auditorium at the University of St. Joseph, but Stefanowski’s proposal to eliminate the income tax took center stage.
The first question the candidates were asked was whether there was a correlation between implementation of the income tax in 1991 and the performance of Connecticut’s economy.
“The problem is not the income tax the problem is the failure of political leadership going back generations,” Lamont said.
Lamont said Stefanowski’s proposal to eliminate the income tax which brings in about $9.5 billion a year in revenue to a $20 billion budget is a “false promise.”
“It’s time you have a governor who tells you the truth,” Lamont said. Eliminating the income tax would be “devastating to our municipalities and schools.”
Griebel said the decision of a Republican governor and a Democrat-controlled legislature to declare emergencies and spend surpluses in the early 2000s was the problem.
“That was the beginning of erosion of private sector confidence in this state,” Griebel said.
He added: “I don’t believe the income tax is the heart of our problem today.”
Lamont said he’s not going to overpromise something he can’t deliver like Stefanowski. He said he thinks the more burdensome tax is the property tax and he wants to offer a property tax credit to the middle class, elderly, and veterans. He said instead of half of the revenues it’s about 1 percent of the annual revenues to the state.
“I’m going to tell you the truth. You’re going to get an honestly balanced budget. We’re going to hold the line on taxes and bring down the taxes over a period of time and my focus is going to be on the property tax,” Lamont said.
Griebel suggested getting rid of the Business Entity Tax was a reasonable thing to do and would send a message to the business community. The $250 per business tax generates about $60 million. He said he would seek to reduce the income tax, but eliminating it completely is unreasonable.
“Some of these ideas are all poll-tested,” Griebel said. “A property tax credit would go against the income tax, eliminate the personal income tax … If you believe some of this stuff I’ll be happy to sell you two bridges before I leave.”
Asked if Stefanowski still had the upper hand if he wasn’t even in the debate and they were talking about his proposal, Lamont said “where is Bob?”
He said the next governor will have to have a budget on the table by February of next year and Griebel is ready to talk.
“We had a debate on the real issues facing the state of Connecticut,” Lamont said. “And if Bob is ready to lead he should have been here.”
Kendall Marr, Stefanowski’s communications director, said they choose five debates that worked with the campaign schedule.
“We attempted to reschedule this debate for a time that made more sense, but they indicated that wasn’t going to happen,” Marr said.
The debate was sponsored by the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, the CT Mirror, WNPR, and WFSB.
Griebel said he’s happy that was the first question because “it’s all red meat stuff and we can push on it. This state is too educate to fall for we’re going to eliminate the personal income tax or even this property tax credit, which is a credit against your income tax and does nothing for the mill rates in these towns. I think people understand that.”
So why has Connecticut fallen behind its neighbors when it comes to recovering all the jobs lost during the Great Recession?
Lamont said the state has failed to invest in education and transportation and Connecticut’s geographic location is a benefit and “we let that fail and be an extraordinary disadvantage for our state.”
Lamont said the state also failed to invest in its pension funds for decades, which has contributed to Connecticut’s current fiscal malaise.
“What we need right now is fiscal stability. Get us a fiscally balanced budget moving forward,” Lamont said.
The next governor will face a two-year, $4.6 billion budget deficit that could grow depending on Wall Street’s confidence in taxpayers ability to handle the federal cap on state and local tax deductions. They also have to deal with a two-year no layoff clause for unionized state employees.
Lamont said they have a lot of work to do to earn the respect of taxpayers because they believe a lot of money is being wasted “and you know what, a lot of their money is being wasted.”
Lamont said there’s structural savings they can make by changing the delivery of healthcare.
“That will create some real changes going forward,” Lamont said.
He said he wants to hold the personal income tax steady.
“Listen, I’m not looking to raise anybody’s rates right now,” he said. “I think I can do it through a good hard negotiation, some real economies and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Neither Lamont or Griebel were enthusiastic about economic incentives to keep companies in Connecticut and spur job growth.
“Look I’m not going to go in with an arm behind my back with an arm tried my back saying I’m never going to do an incentive,” Lamont said. “Fundamentally I’m going to fix the transportation system, balance our budget and get our education where it needs to be so I don’t have to rely upon these bribes.”
Griebel said they shouldn’t have to do anything to attract companies to come to Connecticut based on cost. He said Connecticut might have a high cost of living but the cost of living in Massachusetts and New York is much higher.
“We should be able to position ourselves by demonstrating we can get our costs under control,” Griebel said. “Demonstrate we can get our unfunded pension liabilities under control.”