By LISA CAPOBIANCO
From state spending and revenues to taxes on small businesses to tourism, local legislators addressed a variety of issues in Connecticut during the annual legislative breakfast meeting last week.
Hosted by the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce last Wednesday at the DoubleTree, the event featured a panel of Democratic and Republican legislators from the greater Bristol area, including State Representative Frank Nicastro (D-Bristol, Forestville), State Representative Whit Betts (R-Bristol, Plymouth, Terryville), State Representative Cara Pavalock (R-Bristol), State Senator Henri Martin (R-Bristol, Plainville) and State Representative Betty Boukus (D-Plainville, New Britain). Other guest speakers included State Senator Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), State Representative Mike Demicco (D-Farmington), and State Senator Joe Markley (R-Southington).
With the 2016 Legislative Session kicking off on Feb. 3, the local and state legislators shared what they plan to focus on this year in a Q&A format during the event.
The state budget: a spending or revenue problem, or both?
Republican and Democratic legislators disagreed on the state budget.
Martin said the state has broken promises over the years due to fiscal irresponsibility. He noted data released by Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis, which indicates that the budget deficit is projected to reach $1.87 billion in Fiscal Year 2019.
“I think we’re just fiscally undisciplined,” said Martin.
Betts said the state needs to get its fiscal house “in order,” adding that the first, second and third priority in the beginning of the new legislative session should be just the budget.
“Until we solve that problem of the budget, we will be back here next year facing the same thing,” said Betts.
Although Bye said there is a spending and revenue problem, Connecticut has experienced “an unusual recovery.” On the spending side, said Bye, the state is $950 million below what the budget was expected to be, adding that Connecticut is now at the bottom 50 percent for states funding higher education.
“That’s a real problem,” said Bye, adding that a lot of positive things are happening in the state, such as bioscience. “We need to attract and keep young people. Our budget, our priorities…should be focused on that.”
Alleviating taxes for small businesses
The answer is to find a way to target relief to small businesses, said Bye. Noting how the state of Massachusetts gave GE $159 million to come there, Bye said the reality is that Connecticut is stuck in a position that hurts small businesses.
“The reality is, we’re in a competitive landscape against other states,” said Bye, adding that the reality is frustrating. “It hurts small businesses.”
“Small businesses are a priority in this state,” added Boukus, assuring business owners that she will work with them to address any issues they have.
Pavalock, who is a small business owner herself, said the problem is not only taxes and regulations, but also the Department of Labor.
“I think we keep restating the problem because we feel like nobody’s listening,” said Pavalock.
Supporting tourism in Connecticut as an income generator
Markley said big arts organizations, such as Long Wharf, the Bushnell, and more, now have regular line items in the state budget for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while enough funding is not available to smaller arts organizations.
“The well-connected arts organizations that…are politically powerful, have managed to put themselves in the budget on a permanent basis at the expense of all the smaller arts organizations,” said Markley. “This is what you get when you centralize power, and it’s a big mistake.”
Noting that tourism has increased in Connecticut, Bye said that although the state budget cut funding for advertising for tourism, the small business express program also is designed to help small non-profits like museums and theaters afford marketing.
She noted that $14 million in bonds were distributed to different non-profits in her district, which has kept those institutions alive.
“One totally ignored part of our economy in Connecticut that’s very important …are the non-profits,” said Bye, adding that the state has ‘world-class’ museums. They bring people to Connecticut. They employ a whole lot of people, and people live here for the quality of life.”
Addressing unfunded state mandates for local communities
Legislators from both parties agreed that a lot of work still needs to be done on unfunded mandates.
“We need to do better,” said Bye.
Martin said he has been hearing about this issue for years. He said the department heads throughout the state of Connecticut should identify several existing policies that are placing a burden on communities, and then ask legislators to make changes. By this, said Martin, pressure on taxpayers and municipalities could be mitigated.
“I think it’s important for the legislature to make a powerful statement immediately…to stop the hemorrhaging that’s taking place at the capital right now,” said Martin, adding that unfunded mandates are a burden to municipalities and businesses. “Send a message out to the businesses who are currently here now…those that are thinking about expanding or maybe don’t want to expand because of these burdens, as well as those we’re trying to attract outside Connecticut.”
The focus for the 2016 Legislative Session
Demicco said a lot of positive things have happened in Connecticut, and more will continue this year. Trying to make taxes and the whole tax and regulatory environment “more fair, more equitable, more predictable for people” is a direction Demicco said he would like to move in. Another investment he noted that will continue this year is in bioscience, education and workforce development.
“That’s what is going to drive economic development here in the state of Connecticut,” said Demicco, adding that the state also should continue investing in transportation. “It has been bearing fruit for many years and will continue to do so. We have to invest.”
Although she noted that the state is $950 million below current services from where it was a year ago, Bye said the state budget is critical.
“Our budget is a problem,” said Bye, adding that the state’s pension system needs improvement. “We do need to look for ways to fix it.”
Martin said the state needs to change the way it does business, agreeing with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.
“We need to become trustworthy,” said Martin, encouraging the business community to get involved and to develop a relationship with their local legislators. “We need to look at the mandates and regulations and ask our agencies to come up with ideas that we can reduce or…change those policies.”
Nicastro encouraged all members of the community to open up to their local legislators, adding how he will always vote his conscience.
“We’re here to serve you,” said Nicastro, adding that Republicans and Democrats need to come together. “I will continue to work for you.”
Comments? Email lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO