WESTPORT, Conn. — Change the legislature and change the state by reducing taxes, improving the business climate, and thereby make Connecticut a better place to live.
That was the theme Republican Cathy Walsh pressed throughout her debate with Democrat Jonathan Steinberg last week.
Steinberg, 60, has represented Westport’s 136th House District in the state’s General Assembly since 2010. Walsh, 61, who chairs Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission, is the challenger.
The debate was sponsored by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce. Its Executive Director Matthew Mandell introduced the event’s moderator, retired U.S. District Court Judge Alan Nevas.
Nevas noted that he also represented Westport in the General Assembly from 1971 to 1977.
“The state is in a dire fiscal situation," Walsh said in opening. "The governor and his cronies have blocked progress … we need to restore common sense.”
One remedy is to replace 12 Democrats in the House with Republicans who will be more responsive to the state’s fiscal needs, she said.
But Steinberg countered, telling the group of about 50 gathered in the McManus Room at the Westport Public Library that he has received the endorsement of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.
This is the first time CBIA has offered endorsements, he said. CBIA is also supporting him in its social media and direct mail campaigns, in large part because he has voted against two of the three budgets Gov. Dannel Malloy has presented during his tenure.
Steinberg is the leader of the Moderates caucus within the Democratic caucus. This group of 22 legislators works with Malloy on some issues, but opposes him on others, and seeks to work across the aisle, all to keep a close watch on state spending.
Walsh called for structural changes to cap spending, and noted that such caps had been sought but never implemented.
On revenue sources, she called tolls “a band aid that will incentivize people to leave,” and added that more than individuals whose tax payments exceeded $200 million have recently left the state. “Big earners are leaving, and smaller ones are stuck,” she said.
“We have to bring jobs.” And to do that, we have to change the legislature, Walsh said. Today’s “won’t open union contracts, it won’t deal with pensions.”
Steinberg pointed out that the contracts cannot be opened until 2021-22, and that it is the governor, not the legislature, who negotiates with the unions.
To address the state’s fiscal problems, Steinberg said he has supported zero-based budgeting. He said the analysis should start with the first dollar appropriated, not with new funding; results-based accountability; and moving some state functions to the more cost effective private sector.
He called Walsh's bid to change the composition of the legislature “rhetoric.”
When Nevas asked about a transportation lock box, Walsh said, “Throw the key away!”
Steinberg said he lobbied for a lock box, only to be thwarted by Republicans who preferred “no loaf to half a loaf,” and added that while Republicans want infrastructure investments they are “against tolls, against a gas tax increase and against Metro-North fare increases.”
Walsh called for a five-year plan with targets and dollars dedicated to transportation. “Connecticut has 400 failing bridges that need to be fixed or replaced,” she said.
Steinberg countered that the state already has a 30-year plan in place but can’t fund it.
The judge joked that Metro-North is doing something in a small way to make improvements by returning bar cars to service.
About the most recent state budget, Steinberg said the moderates caucus “got what we wanted when certain business taxes were rolled back.” But he voted against the budget because it increased income taxes, which has a strong impact on Westport residents.
Returning to job creation, Walsh said, “We have to create well-paying jobs.” Steinberg agreed, and pointed to the ongoing emphasis on bio-science, green energy and precision manufacturing in the state, and on the programs to expand entrepreneurship.
In the closing statements Walsh said, “Structural changes won’t happen without changes in the legislature,” and she pledged to “work with you. … I’ll work as hard in Hartford as I do on P&Z.”
Steinberg, too, returned to his opening point, that he has the support of CBIA, and that he will work to create jobs that will strengthen Connecticut’s economy.