Small businesses vent frustrations at House GOP forum

Portland baker Frank Cavaliere offered the least complicated solution to date for fixing Connecticut’s economy during Wednesday’s state legislative forum.

“If you really want to help–stop helping,” Cavaliere said. “Every time you pass a piece of legislation, you cost us money.”

The 58-year-old small business owner, who was the lead speaker at a two-hour forum sponsored by House Republican Caucus, chastised both political parties with equal vigor. Connecticut’s small businesses are convinced, he said, that state policy makers care little for their problems, despite plans for an Oct. 26 special session on job growth.

“I’ve put my house up for sale and I’m leaving Connecticut because I can’t take it anymore,” Cavaliere said, adding, “but you’re doing a great job.”

On taxes, Cavaliere noted that both parties dramatically increased wholesale taxes on gasoline and other fuels in 2005, then promptly spent most of the revenue from that outside of the transportation system.

On unemployment, state officials boasted how jobless benefits were extended during the recession, failing to mention that Connecticut raised the unemployment compensation levy on businesses last September by $40 per employee to cover interest on federal loans needed to keep the system solvent. “You look like a hero and send us the bill,” Cavaliere said.

And as far as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s regulatory functions, “get rid of (it) and you’ll probably see manufacturing come back to Connecticut,” he added. “You guys don’t even know what the regulations are.”

Though most of the subsequent speakers didn’t match Cavaliere’s intensity, they struck many of the same themes, urging lawmakers to avoid future tax hikes, curb spending growth, reduce regulation and improve transportation.

“Get your own house in order,” Donald Denley, owner of The Hungry Tiger restaurant in Manchester told lawmakers, arguing that state spending rose 5 percent this year while his business is down four workers and paying higher sales and unemployment compensation taxes.

Denley added some Connecticut restaurants can purchase liquor more cheaply at retail outlets in Massachusetts than on the wholesale market in their home state.

“The running joke here in Connecticut is the only time we’re safe is when the legislature is in recess,” added Kevin Maloney, who owns a transportation company in Windsor Locks. “You guys are spending more than we’re making. It’s that simple.”

The legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered more than $1.6 billion in increases in state and municipal taxes and fees this year to close a built-in deficit in the 2011-12 budget that reached as high as $3.67 billion.

That came just two years after the legislature and then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell settled on nearly $1 billion in extra state taxes.

Randy Vidal, principal in a Westport-based commercial brokerage firm, argued that the instability of Connecticut’s tax system, and not just the overall burden, is a huge impediment to business.

“You have some businesses that will never come to Connecticut because of our uncertainty,” added South Windsor insurance agent Jonathan Gilman.

While spending, taxes and regulations dominated much of the discussion, Connecticut’s clogged highways, particularly in Fairfield County, were a chief concern for Tom Dillon, owner of a Stratford-based technology consulting firm.

Dillon said he’s convinced his company loses huge sums annually due to staffers wasting time in their cars while they idle on the highway. “I’m afraid to run the numbers,” he said.

Republican legislators have said they expect the Oct. 26 session won’t address government spending or taxation levels, where the GOP has sharp philosophical differences with majority Democrats in the House and Senate, as well as with the Democratic governor.

But while Republican lawmakers told the nearly 50 businesspeople who attended Wednesday’s forum that the focus would be on areas of bipartisan consensus–reducing regulations, improving access to capital, and enhancing education and workforce training–the forum still digressing into politicking on a few occasions.

Richard Laurenzi, a principal at Prospect Machine, congratulated House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, on his party’s 14-seat gain in the November 2010 elections.

“If we don’t have people in government that are willing to fight for small business, then we don’t have a chance,” added Scott Livingston, president of Horst Engineering in East Hartford.

“I really want to keep it so we talk about business ideas,” Cafero responded.

After the forum, Cafero told participants that the result of the Oct. 26 session “is not going to be the be-all-and-end-all. I don’t want to heighten your expectations.”

Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, who invited Cavaliere to attend the forum, said that while she believes her constituent’s anger is valid, she also believes he and other small businesspeople haven’t abandoned the idea that Connecticut’s job climate can be improved.

“I know there’s frustrations,” she said, “but I think they wouldn’t have taken the time to come up here if they thought we weren’t listening.”