Bocchino, Oberlander debate focuses on the economy, transportation

Jill Oberlander and Michael Bocchino faced off in a debate for the open seat representing the 150th District –Ken Borsuk

Jill Oberlander and Michael Bocchino faced off in a debate for the open seat representing the 150th District –Ken Borsuk

With an open seat in the state legislature on the table, Republican Michael Bocchino and Democrat Jill Oberlander took their cases to why they are the best candidate directly to the voters Monday night.

The candidates for the 150th District appeared at a debate sponsored by the Greenwich League of Women Voters along with the Round Hill, Northeastern Greenwich and Northwestern Greenwich Neighborhood Associations. Both are running to succeed State Rep. Stephen Walko (R-150th) who is not running for a second term and attempted to draw the contrasts between themselves in a district that has close to 1/3 Republicans and 1/3 Democrats, making the 1/3 unaffiliated voters the sweet spot demographic.

Economic issues dominated the discussion as the candidates were asked, through questions collected from the audience, about jobs, business development and, naturally, taxes.

Ms. Oberlander said that since the General Assembly is already undertaking a “comprehensive review” of all of the state’s tax laws with a report due next year. Because of that she said she wanted to see what the report would look like before she addressed any specific ideas about reform. Ms. Oberlander said it was a good idea to look at everything before deciding what measures would be most effective and that a priority had to be protecting those on fixed incomes and making sure they could stay in the state.

Mr. Bocchino chose a more direct repsonse, though, stating emphatically, “Enough taxing. That’s the bottom line. I try to teach my kids not to lose their tempers but when it comes to taxes in Connecticut, especially as it applies to Greenwich, it’s very hard not to get angry. Enough with the taxing. That’s the simple answer.”

Ms. Oberlander challenged Mr. Bocchino by asking if that meant he wanted to roll back taxes and asked where he wanted to find replacement revenue for the state. Mr. Bocchino replied that he wasn’t saying that but was addressing directly a question of whether or not to tax pensions in the state. He said he didn’t want to see any new taxes in the state.

Both candidates were asked what they would do to address the state’s deficits and debated whether this year’s budget was balanced.

“We have a balanced budget,” Ms. Oberlander said. “We’ve come a long way in the last four years. Four years ago we faced an almost $4 billion deficit and we’re in much better shape. We have not cut education spending and we’re spending more on transportation. We don’t have a projected deficit for this year, only for next year. The projected deficit down the road is based on a high rate of spending, much higher than we have been. We need to control costs similar to how we do in town. When we look at their budgets, we start out essentially start out with a projected deficit and they curtail down their costs.”

Ms. Oberlander pointed to her experience on the Representative Town Meeting’s Finance Committee and said she would draw on that to raise questions and “challenge the status quo” about the state’s budget. She said spending had to be carefully monitored.

In response, Mr. Bocchino compared this year’s balanced budget to a magician’s trick, saying that Gov. Dannel Malloy had pushed off so much pending debt into the future that it only looked balanced. Once that came to fruition, Mr. Bocchino claimed, the state would be facing a $20 billion deficit.

“We’re continuing to slide fiscally more and more down the path of ruin,” Mr. Bocchino said. “Our deficit is one that is growing out of control exponentially and it’s something that we as a state and we as a community can address. The debt is staggering and the spending continues. That’s something that we need to address right away. The spending has to stop. We need to take control of our spending and that government is held accountable.”

Ms. Oberlander said the state’s economic outlook is better than Republicans have made it seem, noting that 55,000 private sector jobs had been created since 2011 and that the state’s unemployment rate is falling. She said Connecticut’s jobs are high paying for people with high skills and that industries are finding they don’t have enough applicants for jobs. She praised ongoing efforts on the state level to attract and retain businesses.

“Continued growth is our top priority,” Ms. Oberlander said. “We need to continue the intensive programs and add metrics to make sure we’re accomplishing what we want to. We need to look for opportunities to support our existing businesses like working capital, start up capital and tax incentives. We need to advocate for investment in transportation and education. That will be critical to the long term health of our region.”

Mr. Bocchino said that creating jobs had to be a priority, but they couldn’t just be any jobs. He said they had to be career jobs providing long-term employment that will excite people coming out of college while providing both stability and the chance for families to come to Connecticut to put down roots.

“We need jobs that are going to be beneficial to families, beneficial to the middle class, beneficial to low income families and jobs that are business friendly,” Mr. Bocchino said. “In order to do that we’ve got to create an economy that is attractive to outisde businesses for them to come in and invest in Connecticut. Right now we don’t have that. We need to get out into the private sector and tell them that we’ve got wonderful transportation we’re goin to invest in and we’ve got resources here in the state of Connecticut that are phenomenal. We need to make it easier for employers to do business in the state of Connecticut. When we do that we’ll be able to attract these new businesses in and establish these new jobs.”

The candidates also focused on transportation, something Mr. Bocchino said could be better addressed if the Democratic-led legislature would stop “raiding” the special transportation fund, which was designed to be used for improvement and repair, to balance the state budget. He also called for the creation of a strategic plan.

“When I get there, I’m going to make sure the legislature is held accountable for those decisions that they make,” Mr. Bocchino said. “When it comes to Metro North, safety has to be the number one priority. We need to take a strategic look at all of the rails and all of the cars and make certain we can introduce and create a more safer environment for our people and our product to travel. We need to make sure our bridges are upgraded and our infrastructure is set in place. We also have to look at parking and seeing how we can make it better to get people to use mass transportation. We need to look at ideas like shuttle service and look in-depth at the areas and locations in question. You can’t just throw out there, ‘We’re going to do this’ and ‘We’re going to do that’ when you don’t know what the specific, unique issues are surrounding that station.”

Ms. Oberlander agreed there had to be improvements, saying, “We deserve better.” She pointed to her past work experience for the Metropolitan Transportation Association (MTA) as a reason she would be the better candidate to address this.

“Connecticut has under invested for years in its transportation,” Ms. Oberlander said. “We have, prior to the present administration, raided the special transportation fund. We did not demand performance standards when we could. There was no accountability. In recent years we have dedicated more money to transportation. Federal and state legislators are paying attention now. There’s more federal money now and they’re dedicating it to our community. The MTA is paying attention. We need to have effective representatio in Hartford to continue the pressure and make our voice heard. We need infrastructure investment in Fairfield County.”

There were areas of agreement between the candidates, though, as both said they would not act to reduce or repeal the state’s tough new gun laws and that they wanted to see more focus on mental health help on a state level.

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