Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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Politics

Steinberg, Haskell Seek Reelection

He’s also co-chair of the Legislative Bioscience Caucus, a member of the Coastal Caucus and former member of the Shoreline Resilience Taskforce.

“I look forward to the upcoming campaign as a chance for me to focus on talking with constituents about what matters most to them,” he said. “To me, there’s nothing more important than candid dialogue about how we can solve problems and make our town and state great places to live, learn, and prosper.”

In January, freshman state Sen. Will Haskell, also a Democrat, announced his plans to seek reelection to the 26th District, which includes Westport, as well as Weston, Wilton, New Canaan, Bethel and Ridgefield.

Lamont Keeps State Spending Lean

The administration claims Connecticut cannot afford the relief at this time, even though fiscal projections for the 2020-21 fiscal year are better now than they were when Lamont made the pledge two years ago.

“The budget you have before you today is financially responsible and pro-growth,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget director, said during a midmorning briefing.

The latest budget proposal would grow General Fund spending in the 2020-21 fiscal year by 3.7% over the current year, which is a 0.6% increase over the preliminary 2020-21 budget he and lawmakers approved last May.

Most of the new spending in Lamont’s plan would cover rising state employee health costs, larger-than-anticipated state pension contributions, a growing demand for Medicaid services and a potential shortfall at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Lamont’s budget holds aid to cities and towns largely flat, though it does allow a previously approved increase for the state’s largest grant — the Education Cost Sharing program — to move forward. This would boost aid to communities by $50 million next fiscal year.

Connecticut already enjoys a record-setting $2.5 billion rainy day fund, yet it still does not match the level recommended by Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo and other fiscal watchdogs to safeguard state programs and tax rates against the next economic downturn.

By keeping spending lean and continuing to save a portion of state income tax receipts tied to investment earnings, McCaw projects the reserve — which currently represents 13% of annual operating expenses — would grow beyond $2.9 billion after the next fiscal year ends in mid-2021.

The recommended level is 15% of annual operating costs, which is roughly $3 billion.

“Our successful efforts have resonated on Main Street,” Lamont said in his budget address. “Our budget provided predictability to those counting on it most; I have heard from school principals, city and town leaders, small businesses and families – all saying – “finally, we can now plan for our future.”

Just two years ago, Connecticut had almost no reserves, was still paying off its operating debt from the last recession, and had concluded three consecutive fiscal years in deficit.

“Three years ago, credit rating agencies downgraded our state with headlines like The Wall Street Journal that asked ‘What’s the matter with Connecticut?’” the governor said. “Today, The Wall Street Journal has changed its tone. “‘The state has dug a deep hole–maybe it has now stopped digging.’”

An equally important focus of the new budget, McCaw said, is to grow the state’s economy.

The plan reinvigorates the Office of Workforce Competitiveness to create a unified, statewide strategy for training and developing new workers. The budget adds about $700,000 for new staffing.

The governor also kept a pledge to establish a new “earn-as-you-grow” tax credit for businesses seeking to add jobs. Companies adding at least 25 new full-time jobs over two years, with income at or above 85% of median household income, would receive a break. The program would be capped, meaning Connecticut would not provide more than $40 million in annual tax relief.

McCaw noted that the plan makes no cuts to social services nor to health care providers. But it also lacks any additional operating funds for the community-based nonprofits that provide the bulk of Connecticut’s social services.

Since 2002, state spending for nonprofits has grown by about 10%. After adjusting for inflation, nonprofits say they have lost money.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance projects it would take an extra $462 million per year to make them whole. They recently asked the governor and legislature to gradually increase funding over the next five years for an average of about $92.4 million extra per year.

Though Lamont has said he will support legalization of recreational marijuana use and taxation of cannabis sales, the new budget does not assume any revenue from this initiative.

The governor proposes that no sales occur before July 2022. In the interim, the Department of Consumer Protection and the state’s Equity Commission would study the challenges of legalization and make recommendations for implementation to the 2021 General Assembly.

Other components of the governor’s new budget include:

A “clean slate initiative” that would automatically clear certain Class C and D misdemeanors and certain drug convictions after a waiting period of seven years.

New restrictions on debt-free community college. A means test would be instituted to weed out students with sufficient resources. The program also would be limited to students who enroll full-time in courses within one year of graduating from high school.

$75,000 for new clerical support for the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority. The funding would also allow Lembo to assume operational control of the struggling agency charged with overseeing a new state-run retirement savings program for private-sector workers.

Allowing candidates who receive public grants to run for state office to use a portion of those grants to cover child care services.

Bloomberg Announces Conn. Campaign Co-Chairs

Meanwhile, the campaign said Rosario, who is vice-chair of the Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, has “been a leader on a number of issues,” including urban redevelopment, public safety, anti-gun violence, and climate change.

Wood, a freshman lawmaker, also said the nation is in need of a “visionary leader” who has “a track record of success.”

The Bloomberg campaign said Wood’s priorities include “protecting the environment, creating jobs, fighting for women’s health and reproductive rights, and working towards a modern rail and roads system to ease congestion.”

The co-chairs of the campaign are serving in a voluntary capacity.

Last week, the campaign announced the hiring of several key Connecticut campaign staffers, including Brett Broesder as state director.

The billionaire businessman is running an unusual campaign, financed solely out of his own pocket.

Instead of campaigning in the early primary states, Bloomberg’s focus is on the 14 states that will vote on March 3, Super Tuesday.

He’s heavily investing in states that hold primaries after that, too, and apparently intends to spend time, effort and money in Connecticut, whose primary is not until April 28.

CT Lawmakers’ Guests Send a Message

“Tyler Reeb was an American combat hero whose death was by his own hand, caused by the invisible wounds of war, like 6,000 veterans who die by suicide every year,” Blumenthal said. “He was a father, son, brother, friend, and I am honored that his uncle Chris Reeb will represent his family as my guest at the State of the Union.”

John Beauregard, the president and CEO of the Eastern CT Workforce Investment Board, will be Rep. Joe Courtney’s guest.

The guest of Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, will be Newtown resident Bridget Sclafani, who lost her husband Paul to brain cancer in 2018. The Sclafanis fought insurance companies who denied services for Paul’s treatment and care. After he died, Bridget started a foundation in her husband’s honor to fund research and help other families who find themselves in the same predicament.

“No one should have to battle insurance companies while battling cancer,” said Hayes.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-3rd District, has invited John Beauregard, the president and CEO of the Eastern CT Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit that strives to ensure there are training programs to meet the needs of local employers, including Electric Boat.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, 3rd District, has invited Kristen Whitney-Daniels of Shelton, a 29-year-old diabetic who has had to ration her insulin since she turned 26 and could no longer remain on her parents’ health insurance policy. She volunteers for an organization that fights to bring down the cost of insulin.

The guest of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is Gary Mendell, who lost his son to drugs and is the founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the nation’s addiction crisis.

“Combating the opioid crisis must be a bipartisan priority,” said Himes, who vowed to continue seeking federal funding for organizations like Shatterproof.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, is not bringing a guest this year. Larson instead gave his guest ticket to a Republican colleague.

Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night will be delivered to a joint session of Congress in the U.S. House chamber, the scene of the recent approval of two articles of impeachment linked to charges the president pressured Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court Justices will also attend the address, which was watched by 47 million people last year.

The speech is expected to be highly dramatic because the Senate impeachment trial will wrap up the next day with a likely acquittal of the president.

The speech will also be given the day after the Iowa caucuses, which may help identify a Democratic front-runner to face Trump in the Nov. 3 election.

Democrats Promise Passage of Truck Tolls in Two Weeks

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the Democrats are intent on finding a process that minimizes public vetting of the legislation before a full traffic and fiscal analysis can be completed.

“This is beyond irresponsible,” Fasano said. “How dare you?”

Looney and Ritter said they had votes for passage, and both tried to minimize the obvious question raised by the inability to quickly determine where the bill would come to its first floor vote: The obvious distrust between the chambers, each controlled by Democrats.

Asked if he trusted Ritter and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin, Looney said, “I do.

Ritter, who stood next to Looney outside the governor’s office after a half-hour meeting, said the issue is less with leadership than some rank-and-file members. “Sometimes,” Ritter said, “there’s distrust issues between the House and Senate.”

“I think it’s just there are elements of both caucuses who want their votes to be final action,” Looney said.

Lamont shook off the previous night’s cancellation, saying his fellow Democrats assured him they had sufficient votes, and the only challenge was to find a day when every lawmaker supporting the measure would be available. Democrats have solid majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House, but every Republican is opposed.

Democrats can survive the loss of four Democratic votes in the Senate and achieve an 18-18 tie that would be broken by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. In the House, they need to keep 76 of their 91 members on board.

“I feel as confident today as I did yesterday, as I did the day before that,” Lamont said. “I just met with the leaders and had a good discussion about scheduling, when we can do this.”

The bill, which is available on line, would authorize the state to charge tolls on tractor trailers at 12 highway bridges.

The opening hours of the hearing Friday were consumed by questioning of the governor’s top fiscal official, Secretary Melissa McCaw of the Office of Policy and Management, and the state transportation commissioner, Joseph J. Giulietti

Administration officials warned that if lawmakers fail to find new revenues for infrastructure before the next recession — or before the transportation program falls into deficit in five years — Connecticut’s economy stands to lose tens of billions of dollars.

“The Special Transportation Fund is in crisis,” McCaw told the legislature’s Transportation Committee at today’s hearing. “It needs a suitable, reliable revenue stream. The current situation is untenable.”

The fund is financed by fuel taxes and various fees, and it pays for debt service on transportation bonding and the operating costs of the Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles. Between state borrowing and matching federal grants, Connecticut spends about $1.6 billion per year on highway, bridge and rail repairs.

The $19.1 billion investment Lamont is supporting for the coming decade “will be transformative for our economy,” Giulietti testified.

About $172 million in annual toll receipts, coupled with additional sales tax revenues dedicated to transportation, would prop up the Special Transportation Fund

The plan crafted by Lamont and Democratic legislators would take advantage of low-interest federal financing, with interest rates close to 2%, to minimize borrowing costs over the coming decade.

“These are very, very aggressive rates,” Giulietti said. “The best we’ve ever seen.”

Economic studies have shown Connecticut’s congested highways and rail lines cost businesses and residents a collective $4.2 billion to $5 billion annually in delays and other complications, McCaw said, adding it’s a price the state has been paying for years.

The Metro-North commuter rail system has slower running times than 50 years ago, said Giulietti, the former president of Metro-North.

McCaw warned that if the lawmakers do not act now, the prospects of modernizing transportation infrastructure would be vulnerable to an economic downturn.

A delay of five or six years could cost the economy as much as $30 billion, McCaw said. And for those who believe the next economic crisis is many years away, McCaw said, the current Special Transportation Fund still won’t be sufficient to address future needs.

The STF’s longtime revenue sources — fuel tax revenues and various motor vehicle fees — are growing at less than 3% per year while transportation costs are growing by 4%, McCaw said. If toll receipts or some other revenues aren’t added to transportation, the STF would fall into deficit by 2025, she said.

“Major bridge work” is needed at all 12 of the highway structures where toll gantries would be located under the plan, Giulietti said. The tolls would go into effect in 2023.

Republican legislative leaders pushed back Friday against the Democratic governor’s plan, calling it a first step to a broader tolls plan, though that would require the passage of a second transportation bill, most likely after 2023 and requiring a legislative consensus that now seems unfathomable.

“It may be trucks today, but we all know it will be cars tomorrow,” said Patrick Sasser, founder of No Tolls CT, who said the need for tolls is decades of fiscal mismanagement of state finances. “Sadly, the trust is broken and we have had enough.”

Democrats have tried to underline that passenger tolls are permanently off the table by proposing bond language barring them.

But Klarides said such language would be worthless: Wall Street never would try to enforce them, since investors in bonds want only one thing: “They want to be paid.”

Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, noted that the 2007 legislature approved about $2 billion in bonding to shore up the teachers’ pension fund, pledging in that bond covenant not to alter the schedule of contributions to the pension system until those bonds were paid off, around 2032.

The language was not binding, she said.

Last May, lawmakers approved a proposal from Lamont and state Treasurer Shawn Wooden to restructure pension payments.

The governor and treasurer asserted this would not violate the bond covenant as long as Connecticut set aside an amount equal to the maximum yearly debt payment on the bonds, about $380 million.

Connecticut, which had $1.2 billion in its rainy day fund last May — and was on its way to amassing $2.5 billion by Sept. 30 — had no problem fulfilling that $380 million reserve requirement.

The Lamont administration projects that at least 50% of the truck tolls receipts would be paid by out-of-state truck drivers, a factor that Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said should be persuasive.

“It’s like going to the store, seeing a 50% discount, and saying, ‘No, I would rather pay full price,” Bronin said. “The bottom line is we have to make investments now. They have to be big. It is our only chance to be competitive.”

But Kurt Lindeland, who runs Connecticut Mulch Distributors in Enfield, said plenty of Connecticut companies will pay a high price, his among them. His company owns 38 trucks and makes 11,000 trips annually in the state.

“We’re estimating $400,000 to $700,000,” Lindeland said of his projected cost, “And that’s a pretty scary number.”

The administration tried to minimize the impact on Connecticut businesses by exempting all classes of trucks other than tractor-trailers, and no truck would be charged more than once a day at any one gantry.

Unions turned out members to support a transportation financing plan that they say will produce jobs in a depressed construction industry. American Trucking Associations filed written testimony reminding lawmakers that trucks-only tolls in Rhode Island are facing a legal challenge by their industry.

Report: Tolls Special Session Canceled

Mark Pazniokas of CTMirror.org wrote:

Democratic legislative leaders informed the office of Gov. Ned Lamont today that there will be no vote on a truck tolls bill before the General Assembly convenes its regular session Wednesday, despite assurances each chamber has sufficient votes for passage, said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director.

“Senate Democratic leaders have confirmed they have 18 votes needed to move our state’s economy forward, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and finally make a long overdue investment in transportation,” Reiss said. “Additionally, House Democratic leaders confirmed they, too, have the votes to improve the state’s infrastructure.”

But not on Monday, the day Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, had set aside for a special session on the governor’s $19 billion, 10-year transportation infrastructure plan.

Or Tuesday, the only other day before the regular session opens.

Senate Democrats informed their members by email there would be no session but did not offer a reason.

Looney and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, could not be reached tonight but numerous sources said the two leaders had been unable to agree on which chamber would vote on the bill first, a sign that neither leader fully believed the other had the firm votes for passage.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, would not comment on the House-Senate tensions, but he said there also were legal complexities about whether a special session could be interrupted to open the 2020 session on Wednesday and then resume. That only would be an issue if Republicans decided to prolong a debate into Wednesday.

“We are prepared to debate this issue until the good, hardworking people of Connecticut are satisfied we have represented their interests. They don’t want tolls,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.

Lamont’s staff informed the governor of the postponement by phone at 5 p.m. after he left a meeting of his workforce development council. He is to meet with Looney and Aresimowicz to discuss what comes next.

A public hearing on the bill will go forward at 1 p.m. Friday.

The development today was a stark demonstration of how opponents of tolls have succeeded in rattling lawmakers about what is a relatively modest measure:

Tolls on heavy trucks on a dozen highway bridges, raising about $180 million annually. Lamont began 2019 with a proposal for more than 50 gantries that would charge tolls on all motor vehicles, raising close to $800 million.

Klarides said all evidence pointed to the Democrats not having the votes for passage.

“The old adage in Hartford is, ‘When you have the votes, you vote.’ They don’t have the votes for a draft bill we are going to air tomorrow, which could change radically by the time the Democrats decide, if they ever can, to ram through this legislation and shatter the recognized legislative process at a later date,” she said.

“The Democrats are desperate to avoid public scrutiny at all levels, and that has been made clear by them pulling the plug on this process, at this point.”

The governor’s original measure never came to a floor vote, as Senate Democrats said they could not produce a majority for a bill that would impose tolls on passenger cars. House leaders said they could pass a broader tolls measure, but their refusal now to call vote without the Senate going first calls that into question.

Unless the House and Senate leaders can agree on a path forward, the 2020 session will begin with the Democratic governor, Senate president pro tem and House speaker at odds, in the awkward position of being unable to publicly explain why they could not produce a vote on what emerged as the highest priority and most difficult issue of Lamont’s first year in office.

As is tradition on opening day, Lamont is scheduled to address a joint session of the General Assembly on Wednesday. One rationale for acting on a transportation bill in special session was to allow lawmakers to highlight other issues in the three-month, election-year session. It also would free up the governor’s staff to move on from an issue that has been all-consuming.

Democrats hold solid majorities in both chambers, 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House. Organized labor, especially the construction trades, have said a failure to pass a transportation funding measure will complicate re-election endorsements for Democrats later this year.

All 187 seats of the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November.

The proposed toll locations:

I-84 at the Rochambeau Bridge between Newtown and Southbury.
I-84 in Waterbury near the “Mixmaster” junction with Route 8.
I-84 in West Hartford at the crossing over Berkshire Road.
I-91 in Hartford at the Charter Oak Bridge.
I-95 in Stamford over the MetroNorth rail line.
I-95 in Westport crossing over Route 33.
I-95 in West Haven over the MetroNorth line.
I-95 in East Lyme crossing over Route 161.
I-95 at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, between New London and Groton.
I-395 in Plainfield crossing over the Moosup River.
I-684 in Greenwich overpassing the Byram River.
Route 8 in Waterbury south of the interchange with I-84.

Gallery: Pie and Politics Discussion


Scenes from tonight’s League of Women Voters of Westport Pie and Politics event at Ignacio’s The Pizza, 833 Post Road East. Westport’s legislative delegation—Reps. Jonathan Steinberg and Gail Lavielle and Sens. Will Haskell and Tony Hwang —answered questions and commented on state issues as the legislature prepared to go into session next week. Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com and WestportNow.com photos.

A Deal on Tolls Moves Closer

“We’ve got a good bond package,” the governor said. “We’ve reached agreement on where we’re going to go there.”

Lamont didn’t release all the details of the two-year bond plan, but said the centerpiece is $1.7 billion in general obligation [G.O.] bonding for the current fiscal year.

During the eight-year administration of Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, new G. O. bonding — financing for projects paid off with General Fund budget revenues — had averaged almost $2.1 billion per year.

“I thought we needed some discipline in terms of how much borrowing we do going forward,” Lamont said. “We’re going to be borrowing significantly less than they have, on average, over the last eight years.”

Details on bonding for the 2020-21 fiscal year were not released late Monday.

Lamont asked lawmakers last February to limit their new G.O. bonding to just over $1.4 billion this fiscal year, but many of his fellow Democrats in the legislature argued this was too lean.

Connecticut uses general obligation bonds to fund municipal school construction, capital projects at public colleges and universities, state building maintenance, open space and farmland preservation, and various, smaller community-based projects.

Transportation construction is paid for with a mix of federal grants and a second type of state bonding, Special Tax Obligation bonds. These STO bonds are repaid with resources from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund. The STF primarily draws revenues from fuel taxes and a portion of the state sales tax.

Lamont insists tolls are needed because the transportation fund has not kept pace with the maintenance needs of Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded highways, bridges and rail lines.

As part of the tentative bond agreement, about $100 million of the $1.7 billion in G.O. bonding approved for this fiscal year will be dedicated to transportation work.d

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said both the Lamont administration and lawmakers compromised to find common ground on a two-year financing plan.

“It’s taken us a while to get here, and not from a lack of interest or a lack of effort,” Rojas said.

The East Hartford lawmaker did not disclose full details of the tentative agreement but confirmed the $1.7 billion general obligation bonding target for this fiscal year.

Rojas also praised Lamont for being flexible, adding that some of the borrowing the governor allowed beyond his original proposal would enable crucial affordable housing programs to proceed.

Lamont has been at odds with Democrats over borrowing since he took office in January.

Connecticut’s bonded indebtedness per capita exceeds that of most other states, while payments on bonded debt consume 12% of this fiscal year’s General Fund. Supporters of the heavy borrowing of the Malloy administration argue that Connecticut — despite its great wealth — still has many poor communities and this financing advanced top priorities in education, health care and economic development that otherwise would have languished.

The governor would not sign off on a new bonding plan until legislators either adopted a tolls proposal, or otherwise showed how they planned to pay for necessary transportation upgrades in the coming years.

Many legislators who supported tolls countered by saying they would not vote for this new revenue source unless a bonding agreement had been reached.

The tentative deal also marks a big win for Connecticut’s cities and towns.

Three municipal aid programs, which distributed $150 million to communities last fiscal year, have hung in limbo as Lamont and legislators sparred over borrowing. Sources say these grants, including a crucial $60 million local road maintenance program that also pays for winter snow removal, are funded in each year of the tentative, two-year bond package.

The bill calls for tolls to be placed on large, commercial trucks with a rating of Class 8 or higher. This would exempt many Connecticut small businesses from paying the toll.

The bill authorizes the Transportation and Motor Vehicles departments to hire a toll operator. The DOT commissioner may establish rates provided they fall within a range of $6 to $13 per gantry. E-ZPass holders would be eligible for a discount.

Lamont estimates this would generate about $180 million per year in revenue for the budget’s Special Transportation Fund.

Toll rates could be increased by the DOT to reflect the general rate of inflation or the construction cost index, provided those increases are approved by the state’s Transportation Policy Council.

The bill also contains two provisions to guard against any effort by future legislatures to order tolls on smaller trucks or cars.

Until any bonds issued through mid-2022 for transportation projects are paid off — which likely would take into the late 2040s or early 2050s — “the state of Connecticut shall not charge tolls for any class of vehicle other than large commercial trucks,” the bill reads.

The measure also directs the state treasurer to write into the bond covenant — the contract between the state and the investors that purchase Connecticut’s transportation bonds — “that no public or special act of the General Assembly” approved between now and 2030 would attempt to alter this arrangement.

The bill orders 12 toll gantries, chiefly at the locations of aging bridges. All of these locations were identified months ago by the Lamont administration as priorities, primarily because they involve aging bridges.

I-84 at the Rochambeau Bridge between Newtown and Southbury.
I-84 in Waterbury near the “Mixmaster” junction with Route 8.
I-84 in West Hartford at the crossing over Berkshire Road.
I-91 in Hartford at the Charter Oak Bridge.
I-95 in Stamford over the MetroNorth rail line.
I-95 in Westport crossing over Route 33.
I-95 in West Haven over the MetroNorth line.
I-95 in East Lyme crossing over Route 161.
I-95 at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, between New London and Groton.
I-395 in Plainfield crossing over the Moosup River.
I-684 in Greenwich overpassing the Byram River.
Route 8 in Waterbury south of the interchange with I-84.

State of Town and Schools Strong But With Challenges

“The state of the Westport Public Schools is strong and getting stronger,” she said citing state and national laurels for its STEM program, new, elementary level math and science curricula and the schools’ increased focus on students’ social and emotional health.

“But, we should never rest on our laurels,” she added.

The biggest challenges for the schools—and by extension the town —is the scheduled reopening of the $32 million renovated Coleytown Middle School (CMS) in late August and its effect on the annual budget cycle.

“The budgeting processes are intense this year,” Savin said, adding that “unfortunately we have no such circumstances this year” to have a similarly lean, 1.79% budget increase as last year.

When asked about the town’s biggest budget challenge, Marpe said that while there will be tradeoffs in the capital forecast, “I’m actually pleased with our operating budget.” He added that municipal department heads have done their due diligence to keep department budgets down.

One audience question presented by Jeffrey Wieser, deputy moderator of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), asked Savin what the strategy would be if CMS were not operational by the fall.

“There are a few scenarios,” she said, saying that “if something crazy happens” the schools would continue next year as this year, with CMS students attending Bedford Middle School.

Among some of the challenges for the town, Marpe said, are traffic “because of our location and the presence of two, major limited access highways and Route 1,” making Westport a pass-through community.

“I will be scheduling specific RTM district public meetings to try to identify practical, realistic solution to the local traffic problem,” he said.

Marpe also said that affordable housing “continues to be a challenge for Westport because of the limited amount of undeveloped space in our community.”

He lauded the four-year moratorium the town has to address the problem in the wake of the state’s affordable housing statute, 8-30g, which allows a developer to override local zoning laws if a municipality does not have 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable, which Westport at 4%, does not.

“During that time we have the opportunity to guide the development of affordable housing that respects our neighborhoods while addressing the realities of our affordable housing obligations,” he said.

On other topics, Marpe was asked about a controversy involving the Westport Museum for History and Culture, formerly known as the Westport Historical Society (WHS). The museum recently removed the Sheffer family name from its gallery following a gift from the estate of a Weston man, Daniel E. Offutt III.

Marpe said the museum was not unlike other nonprofits in town and the town did not involve itself in the internal affairs of such institutions. “That’s not really for us to do,” he said.

The first selectman acknowledged until several years ago that the town paid the WHS for storage of records but that was no longer the case.

He said the town had contributed to the museum’s New Year’s Eve effort known as First Light, which replaced the First Night but was not happy to learn that some of the town funds went to paying museum salaries. “We will make every effort to recover” those funds, he said.

Marpe capped his remarks about the controversy by saying he was not happy with some comments about the situation made on local blogs.

“The tone is not what Westport should be about,” he said, and adding that some of the comments were akin to cyberbullying.

As part of Westport’s efforts to improve the environment, Marpe said he would soon be announcing a “2020 Zero Food Waste Challenge” in which residents would be asked to reduce the amount of wasted food thrown away.

On the subject of finding a replacement for Joey’s by the Shore at Compo Beach and the concessions at Longshore, Marpe said the town was reviewing bids submitted by a new operator and hoped to have at lease a limited food concession business in operation by the beginning of the summer beach season.

Senate Dems Say Election Year Shouldn’t Stymie Pot Debate

“We have hundreds of people driving to Massachusetts every day, every week, to buy recreational cannabis. Is that in the best interest of this state?”
Gov. Ned Lamont

A measure raised last year carried a fiscal note projecting Connecticut could make $70 million in the first year of legalization and about $160 million annually after that.

Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who co-chairs the Education Committee and supports legalization, said other advocates often emphasize the revenues the state could gain by taxing cannabis sales.

“How ironic it is right now that we’re thinking about passing legislation to sell legalized cannabis to pay our bills, when we had a number of people who have risked their lives and liberty to do the same thing to pay their bills,” McCrory said, referring to some of those convicted of selling cannabis illegally.

A more effective strategy, he continued, would be to emphasize how legalization could be used to reverse decades of injustice.

The bill must include expungement of the criminal records of some drug-related offenders, as well as opportunities for residents of poor, marginalized communities to work in the cultivation, processing, distribution and sales of cannabis products, he said.

If equity issues are not addressed, McCrory added, “I don’t think we have a snowball’s chance to get this legislation passed.”

Looney noted that Lamont, who largely stayed out of the marijuana debate in 2019, has indicated he plans to play a stronger role in pushing for legalization.

“I think the times are changing,” the governor told Capitol reporters on Wednesday. “Look at what all of our neighboring states are doing. Right now we have hundreds of people driving to Massachusetts every day, every week, to buy recreational cannabis. Is that in the best interest of this state?”

And Looney added today that Massachusetts’ marijuana market isn’t the only one to consider. New York and Rhode Island are considering bills to legalize pot sales, and a referendum is planned in Rhode Island.

Recent polling data shows Connecticut consumers are very familiar with states’ efforts to legalize marijuana sales and favor it happening here, Looney said.

“I don’t think we want to put our heads in the sand and be in a position equivalent to a state that refused to recognize that prohibition of alcohol … was a failure” in the 1920s and early 1930s, he said.

But Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, predicted today that any push to legalize pot sales here would generate strong public backlash.

“We should be having conversations with our youth in the schools, who tell us how you can’t go to the bathroom, you can’t get on a bus, you can’t go down a hallway without seeing marijuana or some sort of product,” he said. “That’s the epidemic that we should be addressing.”