GREENWICH — Clashing over tolls, police accountability and more, the two candidates in the race for the 36th Senate District met for a debate Thursday night at Greenwich Town Hall.
The debate between incumbent Democrat state Sen. Alex Kasser and Republican challenger Ryan Fazio was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greenwich and broadcast via Zoom. They presented competing visions for the district, which includes all of Greenwich plus parts of Stamford and New Canaan.
“The fact is that right now, Connecticut is on a good path. And if we stay safe and focused, we’ll emerge from this pandemic better than before,” Kasser said. “But we can’t let disinformation distract us. The idea that Democrats destroyed the state is a myth. The idea that Republicans can save us is also a myth. Political parties don’t save us. Only our principles do.”
But Fazio, a member of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting, said it was time for a change.
“As your state senator, I will advance a new vision to unite Democrats, Republicans and people in between in order to put our state on the right path to prosperity,” he said. “We need to reduce taxes on all families and create jobs in this state. We need to keep schools open safely and reduce state influence on local school districts.”
Taking on tolls
In her first run for Senate in 2018, Kasser made highway tolls a central part of her platform. And while the attempt to reinstitute tolls failed, she said she stood by that position.
“We have an infrastructure crisis in our state,” she said. “We have a special transportation fund that is now set to become insolvent two years earlier than expected in 2022. We have to address it. This has been a crisis in the making for decades — and we can’t avoid it.”
Kasser said she continues to support creation of an infrastructure bank, which she said could bring in billions of dollars in private funding and leverage public funding for transportation improvements. She said she still support tolls, noting that every other state on the East Coast has them.
“We have to pay for our infrastructure one way or the other,” Kasser said. “Really, the choice is do we pay 100 percent for our infrastructure with taxes, which is the system we have now. Or do we pay half price by allowing out-of-state drivers, with millions of them using our roads every year, to pay half the bill. Do we pay full price or half price?”
Fazio rejected that framing of the question on transportation but agreed that the infrastructure needs improvements. But tolls are not the solution, he said, because the money is already in place for transportation — it’s just not used for its intended purposes.
“There’s not a revenue problem in our state for transportation,” Fazio said. “Connecticut spends the third most per capita of any state on transportation in the entire country — and that’s on top of the fact that we already pay the second highest taxes of any state in the entire country.”
Fazio said new highway tolls would “only add insult to injury.”
“We have a spending problem in our state, including on transportation,” he said. “Spend the money already designated to the special transportation fund on transportation. Stop diverting it to other parts of the government’s budget.”
Additionally, Fazio also said the state must address labor agreements and other rules, which he said add as much as 20 percent to 30 percent to construction costs. He also called for an audit of the state Department of Transportation. And, lastly, the state should prioritize projects, he said, pointing to Interstate 95, the Merritt Parkway and Metro-North.
Fazio, who has picked up endorsements from Greenwich’s Silver Shield Association police union and the Stamford Police Association, also criticized the police accountability law enacted over the summer. He called the new law “radical” and said the legislature passed it without enough consideration and debate.
The law mandates police use of body and dashboard cameras, creates an inspector general’s office to investigate complaints of police misconduct, bans chokeholds in most circumstances and requires officers to get involved if they witness police brutality.
But police and Republican politicians have criticized the law for removing qualified immunity, which can make it easier for someone to personally sue a police officer, and for forcing changes in tactics like eliminating consensual searches at traffic stops.
“We have strict gun laws in this state, but now due to this bill and the backlash against proactive policing, we won’t be able to enforce those rules in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, repeat offenders and people who are a danger to themselves and others,” Fazio said. “We need good, proactive policing policies in order to keep our most vulnerable populations safe.”
Fazio added that he was in favor of “rigorously” enforcing gun laws to keep them out of the hands of criminals.
Kasser, who has the endorsements of Connecticut Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, said the legislature passed three bills on guns this year.
“I am committed to advancing gun safety and upholding our current laws,” she said. “We don’t know where my opponent stands on this issue because he’s never answered the questions from these groups, which require a commitment to upholding our gun safety laws and a commitment to investing in community programs which have proven to be very successful in reducing gun violence.”
Unfunded state pensions
The ongoing issue of unfunded pension liability for state employees was also debated. Fazio called the problem and the budget crisis it caused, “the biggest millstone around the middle class in our state.”
“We don’t just need a financial solution, we need a legal solution,” he said. “Forty states in the past 10 years have reformed their existing pension program to make it solvent or affordable. Connecticut was not among them. … We must reduce overtime spiking. We must reduce cost of living adjustments. We must increase employee contributions to their pension and health care that are still below private sector levels but are more fair and commensurate.”
Kasser said the issue was part of her her first campaign and is again this year.
“I brought what is called the share risk plan to our legislature,” she said. “It is a proven solution. … It is not draconian. It creates a system where both employer and employee share the risk of market volatility. I also introduced an amendment to our state constitution that would require full funding of pensions going forward so that this crisis cannot be repeated. It came about because of 40 years of kicking the can down the road by Republicans, Democrats and by everybody.”