The five Republicans battling for the gubernatorial nomination had a tough time separating themselves Monday during a debate at the University of Fairfield.
When it came balancing budgets, revitalizing cities, growing the economy, avoiding tolls — and not mandating affordable housing quotas on the suburbs — Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst, Steve Obsitnik, Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman found common ground frequently.
And when there were differences — whether Connecticut’s income tax can be eliminated entirely, or whether the state should have bailed out the city of Hartford — they were nuanced and subtle.
“It is time to give Hartford the tough pill of medicine it requires,” Herbst, former first selectman of Trumbull, told the crowd of nearly 600 gathered at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts.
When it comes to the bailout of the financially distressed city of Hartford, a deal negotiated by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Herbst said he would have preferred that a state-appointed board take over the city and cut spending. “We need qualified people to go into Hartford and take the politics out.”
The state bailout, while covering hundreds of millions of dollars of Hartford’s bonded debt, leaves no incentive for the city’s bond holders to offer any concessions, said Stefanowski, formerly the chief financial officer of UBS Investment Bank and a senior executive at GE. He said the city likely would need to file for bankruptcy to get its finances in order.
“I’ve yet to see a plan [for Hartford] that actually gets it into a recovery mode,” he said.
Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, was even more direct.
“We need to let them go bankrupt and say ‘You made your bed, now you’ve got to sleep in it,” he said.
Stemerman, a former hedge fund manager from Greenwich, also said Hartford should be forced to get its finances in order and reduce spending. The best role for the state to play, he said, is to grow the economy so urban centers can reduce unemployment and expand their tax bases. “People are leaving this state because they literally can’t find a job,” he said.
When it comes to Connecticut’s sluggish recovery from the last recession, the GOP candidates all described a state that is unappealing to many businesses.
“We are not a stable and friendly business environment,” said Obsitnik, a tech entrepreneur from Westport, who said the state needs to focus tax relief on businesses and “working folks.”
Stefanowski said replacing Malloy with a governor who is a business executive is the key to drawing more companies to Connecticut.
“How do you expect to attract businesses when the CEO is meeting with someone who’s never had a real job?” Stefanowski asked.
Stemerman said the key is greater investment in transportation and higher education — the keys to giving businesses the infrastructure and workforce they need to thrive.
“The roads are a complete nonstarter,” he said. And when it comes to Connecticut’s college graduates, there are not enough with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. “We need to have a workforce that is needed,” he said.
When it came to upgrading Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded transportation system, the candidates found common ground in their opposition to electronic tolling — and the lack of additional details they provided.
Herbst suggested a “forensic audit” of the budget’s Special Transportation Fund might turn up something. He added that existing state assets — but didn’t identify which ones — might be sold or leased to help bolster the fund.
Herbst’s answer was good enough for Obsitnik, who simply added “I stand shoulder to shoulder with Tim.”
Boughton also said the state should try to explore whether non-transportation programs are paid for in the Special Transportation Fund, and seek to weed those expenses out.
And Stefanowski said the answer probably doesn’t lie in the state’s deficit-plagued coffers.
“We are not going to find the money in our state budget to fix our infrastructure,” he said, adding that “It’s all about the private sector” which has “a ton of money” it is prepared to invest in transportation enhancements — in exchange for a return on those funds.
As for the lack of affordable housing outside of Connecticut’s urban centers, Republicans were unified that state government should not force its suburbs to develop more.
“Having local control of these issues is generally the controlled approach,” Stemerman said, adding that the state should focus on preserving municipal aid and avoiding imposing unfunded mandates.
When asked whether he believes a lack of affordable housing in usburbs was a problem, Stemerman replied “I do not.”
Obsitnik suggested the best approach was “allowing people in the towns to be more innovative, to come up with their own solutions.”
Boughton said his administration would be willing to work with cities and towns interested in offering more affordable housing, but “I don’t want the state coming in and overriding them.”
Boughton and Stefanowski have frustrated their rivals by claiming they would phase out the state income tax, which provides resources for more than 50 percent of the budget’s General Fund.
Boughton, who estimated he would need 10 years to phase out the tax, warned it’s not a static plan and might need to be adjusted. “It’s a rough cut and a rough sketch to get us where we need to go.”
Stefanowski, who insisted he would find the savings from state employees and by reorganizing agencies — despite existing contracts that would bar the next governor from ordering major layoffs until mid-2021 — also would not back off his pledge.
“Anyone who stands up here today and says you can’t do it isn’t a true leader,” said Stefanowski. “ … I will rip costs out of the state budget like you have never seen in your life.”
But while the other three said the income tax can’t go away, Obsitnik, Stemerman and Herbst each said they would still would propose significant tax cuts. Among their proposals were cuts to income, corporation and estate taxes. And that’s despite projections that state finances face deficits topping $2 billion in each of the first two fiscal years of the next term.
“The distance from impossible to possible is much shorter than we think it is with the right leadership,” said Obsitnik.
“There’s nothing I put in that plan that I don’t believe can’t be done,” said Stemerman.
Monday’s debate was sponsored by the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.