Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Nearly 300 retired teachers listen to the candidates (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

SOUTHINGTON, CT — The two major party candidates were given the questions in advance, but that didn’t change the answers either candidate gave regarding the teacher’s retirement system.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Stefanowski told nearly 300 retired teachers that he has no intention of changing their current retirement benefits, but if they wanted to take a lump sum buyout or switch to a 401K plan they would have that option if he’s elected governor.

“I would hope some teachers would opt into a 401K plan, I think that would help,” Stefanowski said. “The bigger thing is to find the revenue streams up in Hartford to live up to our part of the deal.”

At a forum hosted by the Association of Retired Teachers of Connecticut Stefanowski said he would maintain the current pension and health benefits promised to retirees.

Stefanowski and his Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, agreed on this point, but differed on how exactly they would do that and how it would impact current teachers. Oz Griebel, an unaffiliated petitioning candidate, was not invited to participate.

“The best way to do that is to cut taxes and get this economy moving,” Stefanowski said. “It’s gonna provide more income, more jobs … this state’s going to feel like an entirely different place. We can use that to fund all the outstanding liabilities we have.”

The annual contribution to the Teachers Retirement System is about $1.3 billion, but it could top $6.2 billion by 2032 due to years of underfunding. Connecticut didn’t start setting aside money to pay for teachers until around 1982.

The pension fund, according to the last valuation has enough assets to cover 56 percent of its long-term obligations.

Another complication is that in 2008, Connecticut borrowed $2 billion to shore up the fund. The bond is expected to be paid off by 2033. When that borrowing was approved Connecticut pledged in a bond covenant to contribute the annual payment to the fund for 25 years.

Only in extreme circumstances would Connecticut be allowed to skip the payment.

Stefanowski’s pronouncement that the first thing he would do if elected would be to declare a “fiscal emergency” was concerning to retirees, who fear it would be used as a way not to make the contribution.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Ned Lamont (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ned Lamont said he would make the annual required contribution to the pension fund and he doesn’t think that’s a promise Stefanowski can make if he’s planning on eliminating the income tax.

Eliminating more than 50 percent of the state’s revenue stream while continuing to meet all of Connecticut’s current obligations is impossible, Lamont said. He said Stefanowski hasn’t said where he would cut spending to make up for the loss in revenue, so the only thing the public can do is speculate where spending would be cut in his administration.

“What I can promise you is I want to put the state Lottery into the teacher’s pension fund,” Lamont told the retired teachers.

He said the lottery revenue will help shore up the pension fund, which is underfunded by about $13 billion. He said they also need to increase the investment returns the fund gets.

Lamont said if the private sector had failed to make the contribution to the state pension fund they would have gone to jail.

Lamont said if Stefanowski eliminates all the taxes he wants to eliminate, “you know who is going to be paying for that?”

The retired teachers responded “we are.”

Stefanowski renewed his pledge to eliminate the income tax over eight years.

“Even if you don’t believe I could do that, which would you rather have as your next governor: someone who is one the record saying he’s going to raise taxes or someone like me who is going to come in and work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get this tax rate down and get more money in your pockets?” Stefanowski said Tuesday to a small smattering of applause.

He also mentioned the eliminating the estate tax, which he realized after explaining his reasoning likely didn’t impact any of the retired teachers in the room.

Lamont told the crowd they need a governor who is going to honor his commitments and make the pension payments on an annual basis.

Lamont said he didn’t think it was fair that active teachers were asked in 2017 to increase their contribution to the pension from 6 percent to 7 percent.

“I thought that was lousy what they did to you last time,” Lamont said. “They charged you another percentage point that doesn’t even go to shore up the pension fund.”

Lamont said he would honor the commitment the state has made to retired teachers.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Bob Stefanowski (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

As for those 401Ks? “If I were you I’d stick with the defined benefit plan,” Lamont said to applause.

Lamont said he’s the only candidate in the race that believes in labor and the right to organize.

The teachers who attended the event pointed out that during the Republican primary Stefanowski was grateful for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

Video of Stefanowski at a candidate forum shows him saying “When I saw that decision come through I was clicking my heels three times. It’s going to make government roll a lot more easy.”

Stefanowski said the conversations he’s had with rank-and-file union members is very reasonable.

The retired teachers also wanted to know about Stefanowski’s relationship with President Donald Trump.

Stefanowski said Trump tweeted an endorsement of him after he won the five-way Republican primary and that’s the extent of their relationship.

“Anytime you get endorsed by the President of the United States, I think you have to respect the office. It was a pretty neat thing,” Stefanowski said.

“I like what he’s done for the economy. Think about what he’s done. He’s put America first,” Stefanowski said to grumblings from the audience.

Stefanowski asked them to let him finish.

“He’s lowered taxes. The national economy grew at 3 percent in the first quarter,” Stefanowski said.

Regarding the “social side,” Stefanowski said he has three daughters and “I don’t like the rhetoric. I don’t like the tone. I don’t like the content. I don’t think my daughters should be listening to that.”

It’s the first public appearance Stefanowski since last weeks debate.

Stefanowski, a political newcomer who hadn’t voted in 16 years before deciding to run for governor, and who thumbed his nose at the Republican nominating process, is climbing in the latest poll.

In a three-way contest, Stefanowski received 36.1 percent of the vote, Lamont received 39.5 percent of the vote, and Griebel received 8.4 percent of the vote. Lamont’s 3.4 percent lead over Stefanowski is within the 4.32 percent margin of error.

The Sacred Heart University poll of 501 voters was conducted between Oct. 13-17.

Bob Stefanowski addressed retired teachers and then talked to reporters.

Posted by on Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ned Lamont following his talk with retired teachers.

Posted by on Tuesday, October 23, 2018