The Darien League of Women Voters held a Legislative Coffee on Feb. 15 at the home of Joyce and Mike Critelli. State Representatives Terrie Wood, William Tong and State Senator Carlo Leone fielded sharp questions from Joyce Critelli who moderated the discussions, and from the twenty league members and their guests, including several Darien town officials, in attendance. Topics ranged from the State’s $2.5 billion deficit over the next two years, the modification of the affordable housing law, 8-30g, transportation, unfunded education mandates, energy and gun violence.
The legislators were asked to comment on Governor Malloy’s proposed budget, which calls for increased spending for pre-school education, and borrowing of $750 million to make up for lower revenue projections and increased Medicaid spending. The governor’s proposed budget calls for spending increases of 9% per year over the next 2 years. Wood was in favor of the increase for pre-school education for underserved districts, but opposed many of the Governor’s new spending proposals. Rep. Tong said that he believes the state can resolve its financial situation as the economy improves and revenues increase. His concern is that the state might lose jobs without increased spending.
Wood reported that she has been working hard to alleviate the burden of 8-30g, which cost Darien taxpayers over $600,000 last year in litigation related expenses. She has proposed several bills, including one bill which would give seniors a full point credit towards affordable housing versus the half a point they currently get. Another proposed bill would provide penalties for people who lease or sell affordable housing to people who do not qualify, and another would extend the period of affordable housing from 40 years to perpetuity. There was a feeling among the legislators that the builders were “holding people hostage” with long judicial hearings which were costly to the taxpayers
Board of Education member Heather Shea asked about the proposal to reallocate special education funding on the basis of a community’s wealth. She stressed that Darien needs more certainty as to when and how much it will get reimbursed for the amounts it spends on special education, since last year we were only reimbursed for 73% of these costs. Board of Education vice chairman Clara Sartori, asked about the new unfunded mandate that would require teacher evaluations and whether high performing districts could be exempted, since such unfunded mandates increase expenses.
On the topic of transportation, Tong and Leone were asked about the demolition of the Stamford Train Station parking garage, since there was a concern that the new garage might be built up to a quarter mile away. Jim Cameron has been working with the legislators and others to ensure that parking will be convenient and affordable, and that there will be as little disruption for commuters as possible. The legislators said that the project would be a public/private partnership to save money, although it is still likely to cost taxpayers $40 million.
On the question of energy, the League asked about Gov. Malloy’s plan to get more of Connecticut’s energy from natural gas. Natural gas is currently far less expensive than oil, although it generally costs $7,500 to hook up a home. Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao pointed to the difficulty of getting Yankee Gas to run gas lines quickly, especially to schools and affordable housing. Tong said that he would help town representatives find a way to put pressure on Yankee Gas to be more responsive to local needs.
Questions were asked about the progress of the Gun Violence and School Safety Task Force. Tong mentioned that he had sponsored the Lost or Stolen Firearms law, which required owners to report lost or stolen guns within 72 hours. This law makes it more difficult for criminals to buy guns from owners. However, Tong stated that there would be an ugly battle if the state imposed sweeping limits on assault weapons and magazines, since Connecticut is home to several gun manufacturers, including Colt. He stated that there is the need to balance the loss of jobs that would result if these companies left against whether such regulations would increase public safety. Wood is the co-chairman of Mental Health for this committee, which is discussing various ways to tighten background checks and screen for mental health problems.
The league held a similar meeting with State Senator Bob Duff at the Critelli home on Monday, Feb. 25.