Transportation, energy and the state's fiscal crisis were topics for discussion when State Rep. Livvy Floren (R-149th) squared off against Democratic challenger John Blankley during Thursday's candidate's debate held at the Round Hill Community House.
About 50 people attended the double-header event, sponsored by the Round Hill, Northeast and Northwest Greenwich associations, which earlier in the evening featured a .
"I have experience, governing skills, and a track record of legislative accomplishment," said Floren, a ranking member of the House Bonding Sub-committee, where she serves on the State Bond Commission, in her opening statement. "My professional background as a business woman, and a lifetime of public service and civic involvement, gives me the credentials necessary to understand the issues and seek fiscally prudent common sense solutions."
Floren, a six-term state representative who also serves on General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, the Committee on Aging, and the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said as a homeowner and resident in the 149th District for 40 years, who put all four of her children through Greenwich Country Day and Greenwich High School and now has four grandchildren in town, "I feel I am deeply rooted in this community."
"I know the process and I know the people," Floren said of her job up in Hartford. "As former president Bill Clinton said, relationships are key — once you've been in the job you are bound together by experience, by trust, by duty, and by scar tissue."
Floren is also a former member of the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting and Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Blankley, a former executive with BP North America and Stolt Nielsen who now co-owns a technology consulting company, said he "has a plan" to fix the state's current problems.
"I intend to fix education, I intend to fix our failing infrastructure, I intend to lower state taxes, and I intend to balance the state budget," said Blankley, a former RTM member who ran unsuccessfully for first selectmen in Greenwich last year. He said if elected to the House, he would tackle the state's fiscal issues head-on, using his background and experience as a former corporate executive.
"The bitter pill of reality is that state taxes are not going to go down anytime soon," Blankley said. "As you heard earlier, there is this matter of our debt and unfunded [pension] liabilities. Oh, and by the way there is wealth distribution going on — taxes are being taken from this community and distributed to other communities in the state. It's something we have to live with."
"So what we have to do is look very closely where the money is being spent," he added. "If elected I will bring my business experience — thinking strategically, thinking about return on investment and thinking about cost benefit analysis — to get things done right."
When asked whether she would support a proposal to bring tolls back to I-95 and the Merritt Parkway as a means to fund state transportation infrastructure projects, Floren said she is completely opposed to the idea.
"I am totally against tolls — they're just another form of taxation," she said. "They [the Democrats] say we need [tolls] in order to fund our transportation infrastructure, but we have plenty of taxes in place already."
What's more "there's plenty of money in the state's special transportation fund, if we would just stop raiding it for other uses," she said.
"Tolls would be especially bad for our area, as a border town, because we would have people trying to get around them, clogging our local streets and impacting safety," Floren added.
Blankley agreed that bringing back tolls would be a bad idea. He said if elected he would fight any such proposal.
"It is a thoroughly impractical solution," he said. "I don't know a single person in town or in the political process who thinks this is a good idea. I'm just not sure that the politicians in the other parts of the state realize that this is not a good thing for Greenwich."
When asked what can be done to reduce the interstate commercial traffic which clogs I-95 [i.e. the trucks], both candidates said the real focus should be on reducing the number of passenger vehicles on the highway.
Blankley said regardless of which specific solutions are developed to combat problem, they will more than likely have to be funded on the federal level.
"A little further up I-95 there is the possibility of extending the Route 7 connector up to Danbury, but that is being blocked by private interests," Blankley said. "I come from a part of the world where public transportation is the way most people get around — so perhaps there is some way we can extend public transportation as a way to alleviate traffic on I-95."
Floren agreed and said the best solution "is to get the cars off I-95."
"And the way to do that is to provide alternative modes of transportation," she said, adding that "mass transportation is the best" solution for the state's traffic congestion problem.
"That's why we have put a lot of money into our rails — the new M-8 trains are very successful and I encourage people to use them, rather than their cars," Floren said. "But in order to do that we need a system that is clean and connected. That means parking at the train station."
Floren said a proposal put forth a few years back to double deck I-95 "sounds like double trouble if you ask me." She said she supported the state's high speed ferry service from Bridgeport to Long Island, however the service was never fully utilized.
When asked how he would go about closing the state's budget gap without raising taxes on businesses and high net worth individuals, Blankley pointed to his experience in the private sector.
"I spent a major part of my business career in the large corporate setting — not only overseeing major projects, but also dealing in cost containment," he said. "In any large organization you can always find ways to reduce costs — and our government in Hartford is a large organization. I would not go so far as to call it bloat, it's just that here's always a way to streamline somehow."
Floren said she is currently working with other legislators to find ways to eliminate duplication of services and to streamline processes within various state agencies and commissions.
"I think we need to look at all our service delivery models to make sure there is no duplication," she said. "There are too many silos that have been built up… and it just needs to stop."
"I admire my opponent with his business acumen — but I wouldn't want you to think that I've just been sitting at home baking brownies all these years," Floren added. "I have a master's degree in business administration and finance and I majored in economics in college. I worked in the electric utility industry for 25 years, became a substitute teacher afterward, and now I work in government."
On the topic of voter ID cards — an issue which has been split along party lines — Blankley said he is not opposed to the concept of a voter ID card per se, but he is opposed to the idea of the government mandating that all Americans must have one in order to vote.
"Unfortunately this is being imposed by Republican administrations in states throughout the country… because they see it as a strategy to disenfranchise Democratic voters," Blankley said. He added that such a measure would be onerous, particularly to the poor, who may not have transportation or a convenient means for obtaining the cards.
Floren said she supports the idea of voter ID cards and added that in her view it isn't onerous to the poor at all.
"If you can get to the polls to vote, then you can certainly get somewhere to have a photo ID made, and in fact we have the equipment now to take your photo ID when you come to vote," she said.
Floren said she is in a minority caucus in the legislature because she supports Election Day registration.
"I feel that it will increase voter participation, especially among teenagers," she said. "Having said that I do feel we need to revisit the voter ID issue, in order to keep the sanctity of the vote…"
Both candidates said they would support a measure allowing Early Voting in Connecticut.
"It's worked well in other states," Blankley said, adding that in his view it is a particularly beneficial for people in disadvantaged communities.
"In Bridgeport, for example, there are people who have multiple jobs, and perhaps do not have a car — they would benefit from this," he said.
Floren said not only would she support an Early Voter law, she is also in favor of the state adopting a "no fault" absentee ballot law, "which is a form of Early Voting as well."
"Currently you have to swear that you are disabled or will be out of town or are in the armed services [ in order to vote via absentee ballot]," Floren said. "Well I don't see any reason why a person should not be able to choose to vote via absentee ballot — the main point is: Vote."
Thursday's debate was moderated by Greenwich Representative Town Meeting Moderator Pro Tempore Joan Caldwell.