The League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford and West Hartford Community Television sponsored a debate Wednesday between 18th District State House candidates Mary Fay and Jillian Gilchrest.
By Ronni Newton
Candidates Jillian Gilchrest and Mary Fay took every moment they were allotted during a debate recorded Wednesday at West Hartford Town Hall to differentiate themselves for voters on issues ranging from the budget, to taxes, regionalism, and social programs.
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford and West Hartford Community Television, and will be aired on WHC-TV (channel 5 on Comcast and channel 6098 on Frontier) multiple times beginning Oct. 11 and can also be viewed on demand on whctv.org.
Fay, a Republican who has been a senior manager in the financial services industry and is currently a member of the Town Council, was endorsed by her party for the 18th District race. Gilchrest, a Democrat and director of Health Professional Outreach at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence who formerly served on the West Hartford Board of Education, unseated 12-term incumbent Andy Fleischmann in an August primary to earn her spot on the ballot.
Both candidates are passionate about their views, and were not shy about expressing them and outlining the issues they believe are at the root of the state’s problems.
Libby Swietek from the League of Women Voters served as moderator, and offered a series of questions that were posed by league members, beginning with how each candidate would address the state budget deficit.
Fay said that’s all you read about in Connecticut. “We have huge, huge financial issues. They are the largest of any state and I don’t know about you guys but I’m very, very sick and tired of seeing us at the bottom of every metric.” Residents are fleeing the state, she said, “and I really don’t know if the voters appreciate the severity of our financial death spiral.”
To solve the state’s financial problems, however, Fay said she would not look to increase taxes because the state is already over-taxed and that’s a reason people are leaving. “We do not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” she said, and the “elephant in the room” is that 31 percent of the budget goes toward debt service and funding of state employee benefits and pensions.
Fay said she’s not a “rogue who wants to take away benefits,” but is afraid that the employees won’t be able to collect what they are supposed to because the state is on the brink of insolvency. Her financial services industry experience, she said, gives her the background to deal with such issues.
Gilchrest responded that the number one reason she wanted to run was because she felt that the Democratic party was not taking enough action to address state budget problems. “I think that we can find efficiencies at both the state and local level,” she said, noting that there are currently 10 funding streams for public education which should be consolidated and streamlined – something that would also benefit West Hartford.
New revenues – like from legalizing marijuana or sports gambling – should go toward paying off state debt, Gilchrest said. “We also need to invest in Connecticut going forward … in policies like paid family and medical leave which are proven to bring millennials to the state” and support small businesses.
“I touched on the big picture, the things that are really going to move the dial,” Fay said in her rebuttal. Legalizing drugs, promoting gambling, and tolls and other taxes are not a good thing, she said. The “fringe programs” like the lottery have not improved the economy. “It’s like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon,” she said, and won’t bring the state back to where it was and where it should be.
Gilchrest responded that discussions have been ongoing for several years about legalizing marijuana and sports gambling, and they are legal in surrounding states. “I don’t want to leave any money on the table … I think Connecticut needs to move quickly so we can bring that revenue into the state.”
Unlike the federal government, the state needs to balance its budget, Gilchrest said, and those in the Republican party who say they want to cut taxes need to demonstrate how they plan to do that “without cutting the vital services that are important to the people of West Hartford.”
Both said that “soft services” like mental health and addiction need to be funded.
“I hate to see services cut, in fact that’s not what needs to be cut, but when you have benefits that are not sustainable and nobody wants to talk about that because they’re union benefits and they vote Democratic,” Fay said. While she does not advocate eliminating the income tax, Fay said she would target reducing the corporate tax as one way to grow the economy, increase jobs and bring more people into the state.
“Our state is in financial trouble but it’s the result of years of fiscal mismanagement at both the hands of Democrats and Republicans,” Gilchrest said, and she offered several examples for ways she believes things can be streamlined. One example she cited is changing the system of support for adults with disabilities which is currently managed through state programs as well as nonprofits, and should be moved to be all in the nonprofit sector. Connecting higher education with businesses would also promote job growth and training in skills to support industry in this state, she said.
Fay turned the conversation back to the economy as a whole, and said it’s time to stop playing “the blame game.” She said that we are taxed to death and tolls are going to cost the average commuter $3,000-$4,000 a year. She said what’s needed is to grow the economy, raise the poor to middle class, and the best way to help the economy “is to have a really healthy, vibrant, big middle class.”
On the matter of regionalism, Fay cautioned that waste and fraud in the state need to be addressed first, while Gilchrest said she would consider it in some cases, when it doesn’t mean cutting services or having a negative impact.
Fay and Gilchrest touted different solutions for funding of transportation infrastructure.
The state had a plan, but it hasn’t been followed with the raiding of gas taxes, Fay said. “I think the money’s there we just have to make sure we’re going to designate it for something and we keep it that way.” As for tolls, she said, the rest of New England is flying by Connecticut and “our one competitive advantage is that we don’t have tolls. Why would we take that away when we should be getting the money from the gas tax?”
Gilchrest said that residents already pay tolls when they travel into other states. “I think it’s about time that our neighbors give us some revenue,” she said. “I do support tolls, I support electronic tolls where there would be a reduced price for residents of Connecticut, and I support linking the revenue that we have from those tolls directly to transportation infrastructure.” New leaders need to be elected to fight to ensure that those dollars go where they are intended to go, she said.
In addition, Gilchrest said, increased attention to the environment will result in more energy efficient cars and the revenue from gas taxes will decrease and will need to be made up elsewhere.
Fay said that she “would not advocate any additional tax anywhere in a state like Connecticut that is taxed to death” in response to a question about allowing municipalities to levy their own taxes on certain items or services to ease the reliance on property taxes to fund schools. There’s already an ECS formula, she said, but it’s not being followed. She said she would streamline that formula and come up with more consistency and fairness.
Gilchrest said that she and her husband moved to West Hartford for the amazing schools. “I want to do everything I can to support our public education here in the town of West Hartford. It’s a major driver of people moving to the community.” She said that things need to be addressed at the state level before looking to the municipal level, to clean up the spending, and to consolidate the funding streams and enact a better ECS formula.
Regarding the adequacy of funding for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Gilchrest said we’re fortunate that residents are committed to energy efficiency, but on the federal level the state is facing attacks from the Republican party. “The Trump administration is relaxing efficiency standards – they’re the party that doesn’t believe in climate change so we need to do more at the state level to protect both cuts from the budget and attacks from the federal level.” Ensuring restoration of funds to the Energy Efficiency Fund and the Green Bank are important, she said, and will bring jobs and people to the state.
“Trump’s not on the ballot; Jillian and I are,” Fay said. “I’m a conservationist,” she added, and a member of “Save our Water” who fought the MDC-Niagara deal.
Gilchrest said that while Trump “isn’t on the ballot,” his policies are going to impact residents, and she questioned just how far Fay will go in standing up to her party’s and Trump’s policies.
Both candidates were given the opportunity to give closing statements, and Fay stressed how passionate she is about rescuing Connecticut and the future. “I really believe the true issue with this state is the economy; fixing all this other stuff is just noise,” she said.
Fay said she will lead from the center and “govern for results,” and she has the experience and track record to deal with the economy.
Gilchrest said that over the past 15 years she has worked for various nonprofits on public policy issues at the state capitol, and has been working in and around the Connecticut General Assembly for many years and understands what does and doesn’t work. “I want to bring my skills … to my role as a state legislator.”
Individuals love West Hartford “but they are struggling to live as our property taxes continue to increase,” Gilchrest said. Any new state revenues need to go toward paying down the state debt, and efficiencies need to be found.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we invest in Connecticut’s future … that’s by investing in policies like paid family and medical leave, investing in our transportation infrastructure, and of course investing in our quality public education,” said Gilchrest.
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