WEST HARTFORD, CT — Three gubernatorial candidates knew they weren’t going to please all 500 people in the audience Sunday at Emanuel Synagogue, but some questions never received answers, while other responses were unsatisfactory.
Asked what he planned to do about climate change, Republican Bob Stefanowski, said “I don’t understand the science of it, but there’s enough data points to know that there is a problem.”
He said the federal government has more of an impact on climate policy than the state. Then he pivoted back to the economy.
“I’ll be honest I get some criticism for this. I’m focused on what we can do for the state of Connecticut,” he said.
The line received applause from the audience.
“I can tell you don’t like my answer, I get it,” Stefanowski said as he looked at the woman who asked the question. “But we have an economy that’s about to fall off a cliff.”
Tom Corrigan, a retired state employee, said his pension after taxes is about $2,200 a month.
He said certain organizations have made state employees “scapegoats” for the problems of the state.
“I want to know if you’re aware of the concessions state employees have made,” Corrigan asked Stefanowski.
Stefanowski said he’s aware of the concession packages.
“There’s a bunch of governors, including Republican governors who haven’t funded it,” Stefanowski said of the pensions.
He told Corrigan he would try to be fair.
“I think we would try to protect people’s retirement,” Stefanowski said. “I think there’s some things we can do on an optional basis about getting an early buyout from the defined benefit plan and putting some of that money into a defined contribution plan.”
Critics of that proposal, which has been pitched in the past and dismissed by the last Republican candidate for governor, would say all that does is shift the risk of the pension plan. It doesn’t necessarily lower the amount the state would need to contribute and it wouldn’t necessarily make the plans less expensive in the short-term.
Oz Griebel, who last ran for governor as a Republican in 2010 but petitioned his way onto the ballot this time as an unaffiliated candidate, said he would take the $2 billion in the Rainy Day Fund to lower the two-year $4.6 billion budget deficit and he wouldn’t contribute the actuarially required amount to the state Employees Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System for two years.
Beginning on Nov. 7, Griebel would start negotiations with the state employees coalition and at the same time start trying to figure out how to use the state lottery and state owned buildings and property to lower the unfunded pension liability.
Griebel said he wants to talk about contributing the proceeds from these state assets to the state retiree and teacher retiree pensions by July 1, 2021.
The state’s Pension Stability Commission is also investigating the best way to move forward to reduce the unfunded pension liability. Based on the last valuation of Connecticut’s state Employees Retirement System it’s only funded at 31.4 percent. The Teacher’s Retirement System is funded at 59 percent, mostly due to a decision to borrow $2 billion, to help stabilize the fund.
“This is not a game for children,” Griebel said.
He said the notion that anyone would be able to balance a budget by eliminating the personal income tax like Stefanowski has proposed, or by increasing the state property tax credit like Ned Lamont has proposed, is “nonsense that is insulting to the electorate.”
“Most people I talk to in this state fully understand that the idea that you’re going to cut taxes in this state, particularly in this first biennium with a $4.6 billion operating deficit, is absolutely fiction and an outright falsehood,” Griebel said.
Griebel, who was well received by the crowd and received many applause lines, is only polling at 4 percent and it’s unclear if he will have the financial resources necessary to compete between now and Election Day with respect to buying television advertising or other campaign expenditures.
Lamont, who also ran for governor in 2010 and lost the Democratic primary to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, recently contributed another $5 million to his campaign. That brings his total spending on the race close to $8 million.
Lamont opened his remarks by reminding the crowd that Connecticut is still the “same amazing state” it was when “we all moved here.”
But he added, “I think we have been let down by a generation of political leadership.”
Lamont joked that everybody likes to blame Malloy for everything from “malaria to the Lindbergh kidnapping,” but it’s been 30 or 40 years of failed bipartisan leadership.
“I think we need a governor who is going to be fearless when it comes to shaking up the old way of doing business and taking on the entrenched interests in Hartford,” Lamont said.
Lamont, who didn’t get as much applause as the first two candidates, may be delivering a message that not too many people want to hear.
“I’ve got to reduce costs. I’ve got to hold the line on taxes. I’m not going to raise the income tax,” Lamont said. “I can’t promise you I’m going to eliminate any taxes.”
Lamont said he would challenge both sides of the aisle and he would take the heat for the tough political decisions that have to get made.
Lamont also said he’s be open to exploring things like putting Connecticut Lottery revenue into the Teachers Retirement System and the prospect of moving state-owned assets into a trust to help prop up the state employees pension fund — which has become part of the state’s fiscal woes because previous legislatures and governors have failed to fund it.
Lamont said he’s the only candidate who has the trust of labor and can sit down and negotiate with them.
“I think I’m the only candidate in this race who gives you an idea of how we dig out from this structural hole we’ve got,” Lamont said.
At the same time, Lamont also did not directly answer a question about his membership to an exclusive country club in Greenwich.
Asked about the Round Hill Country Club membership he gave up in 2006 when he was running for the U.S. Senate, Lamont said he moved to Connecticut for the quality of life and the assets here, but “I also love the values represented by the state of Connecticut.”
He never mentioned the country club membership or that he gave it up in his answer.
“We celebrate our diversity. We respect people who are different from ourselves,” Lamont said. “We give everybody a shot. Yankee independence. I understand that and I don’t think those are the values represented by Donald Trump coming out of Washington D.C. right now.”
The crowd applauded.
The forum was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
The next debate will be Oct. 18 at Infinity Hall in Hartford.