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Bob Stefanowski chats with retired teachers Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

It was no accident that Gov. Ned Lamont and his Republican rival Bob Stefanowski never crossed paths during a Tuesday gathering of retired teachers in Plantsville but that didn’t stop the candidates from sparring over how best to use the state budget surplus.

Stefanowski and Lamont separately addressed a late morning luncheon of the Association of Retired Teachers of Connecticut at the Aqua Turf Club. 

When the Madison Republican finished mingling with the attendees following a Q&A session, he declined to take questions from the media but hung around in the venue’s parking lot. He was still near the entrance moments later when the governor arrived. 

Rather than greet his two-time opponent, who he defeated by around 3 percentage points in 2018, Lamont opted for a side door. Stefanowski threw his hands in the air.

“Governor! How are you doing?” he called out. Then he turned to a small group of reporters waiting nearby. “Ask him why he wouldn’t walk by me, will ya?”

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Gov. Ned Lamont makes an alternate entrance Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

An hour later, Lamont, who did take questions, did not deny he meant to avoid his opponent. 

“I went over there. I thought that was easier,” Lamont said. “More peaceful going in the back door.”

With just three weeks left before Election Day, both candidates tread over well-worn themes in their remarks to the retired teachers. Stefanowski earned some laughs with an often-told story about a campaign lunch with a group of teachers who confessed they would not be voting for him.  

As he has since announcing his “parental bill of rights” in September, Stefanowski told the retired educators he believed there were limits on when sex education should be taught in Connecticut schools. 

“It shouldn’t be put on you. If a parent wants to talk about these issues at the kitchen table, that’s fine. Do we need some training on sex education in junior high school and high school? Yes. But trying to teach a kid in kindergarten who can’t tie his own shoes about some of these complex topics — I don’t believe in it,” Stefanowski said. 

Asked about the same issue, Lamont said teachers should have flexibility to discuss what they deem appropriate. 

“I don’t like those who are beginning to pit parents against teachers — ‘Stop it. You can’t teach this or you can’t’ — You’re teachers. You get asked a lot of questions all day long,” Lamont said. “I want teachers to earn the trust of those kids, I want teachers to earn the trust of the parents and by the way, parents, I want you to trust our teachers as well.”

The retired teachers also quizzed both candidates about their commitment to funding contributions to the teachers retirement fund, which they said was currently only about 51% funded. Both candidates answered “yes.”

Gov. Ned Lamont chats with retired teachers Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

However, Lamont’s administration has overseen around almost $5.8 billion in additional payments on the state’s long-neglected pension funds in the past couple years. The payments were required under a 2017 state law that mandates that unused surplus funds be used to pay down the state’s pension liability.

“Don’t knock the fact that we are the first governor in the history of the state to actually make those contributions to your pension fund and more importantly start to pay down debt,” Lamont said. 

Stefanowski, meanwhile, suggested Lamont was patting himself on the back for something the law required. 

“Certain people are taking a lot of credit for paying down a pension that they were legally required to do, but that’s something for another day. The good news is that it’s been paid down. The bad news is, it’s still massively unfunded,” Stefanowski said.

But while Lamont refrained from making what he called “idle promises” to cut taxes, Stefanowski said some of the surplus funds that have gone to paying down pension liabilities should be diverted for other things like tax cuts. 

“I don’t know if you know it, but we have a 6 billion — billion with a ‘B’ — budget surplus right now,” Stefanowski said. “To me we should be looking to do something with that money.”

“To me, I think it’s unconscionable that our government is taking $6 billion of our tax money that they don’t need and they won’t give it back,” Stefanowski said. 

Although Stefanowski often repeats the $6 billion figure, the current state surplus for this fiscal year is around $2.3 billion. Lamont expressed frustration about his opponent’s claims.

“That’s the $4.5 [billion] we used to pay down pensions in the last fiscal year and there could be a surplus at the end of this fiscal year, assuming Russia and Ukraine and Saudis and recession and [Federal Reserve Chair] Jerome Powell don’t screw things up,” Lamont said. “The idea that they’re already spending a surplus we haven’t even earned yet is the type of idle promises I’ve got to avoid.”