Q&A: Steinberg reflects on first year at state Capitol
Updated 9:51 am, Friday, January 6, 2012
A year ago, Jonathan Steinberg moved from an organization that serves around 26,000 constituents to one that works for more than 3.5 million.
He was a member of Westport's Representative Town Meeting from 2003 to 2010 but last year was elected to a larger legislative body -- the Connecticut General Assembly, representing Westport's 136th District.
Before becoming a state legislator, Steinberg, 55, worked for more than 25 years as a marketing executive for several companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, American Home Products/Wyeth and Revlon.
He also was the senior vice president of marketing and communications for Jewish Home Lifecare, which has skilled nursing and short-stay rehabilitation campuses in Manhattan, the Bronx and Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Steinberg joined the General Assembly during a period of transition and uncertainty. Voters had just elected Dannel P. Malloy, Connecticut's first Democratic governor in 20 years.
The state was also facing a budget deficit of more than $3 billion, while bruising negotiations between the governor's administration and state employees' unions also loomed.
As a member of the General Assembly's Transportation, Energy and Technology and Aging Committees, Steinberg played an active role in addressing many of the state's most pressing concerns.
During the last year, he voted for several major pieces of legislation, including a bill that aims to spur job creation; an energy bill that reforms regulation and delivery of electricity; and another measure that mandates paid sick leave for hundreds of thousands of service workers.
Steinberg on Jan. 5 marked the one-year anniversary of his swearing-in as a state legislator. He recently sat down to discuss last year's state budget deliberations, Connecticut's business climate, and his recommendations for improving the state's energy and transportation infrastructure.
Q: How does serving as a state representative compare to having served as a RTM member?
A: There are a number of issues in Westport that have some nuances, and there are some things you have to understand and research. But I don't think it compares with some of the aspects and complexity you find in state government. A lot of it has to do with existing statutes, some of which are not exactly clear how they got to be the way they are. And a lot of it has to do with process -- I guess that's true with any job and any level of government.
I'm a long way from having necessarily mastered the process of state government. And that's a reasonable thing to say after a year. I think I've come a long way. I've developed relationships. I've determined, to some degree, whom I can trust, and those people I know can get it done. I understand better the process of working with the administration, which has been new for a lot of people because we haven't had a Democratic governor in quite a while.
Q: Why did you vote against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed $40 billion biennial budget?
A: There were several reasons why I was uncomfortable voting for the budget. One could argue that raising taxes was inevitable, but I would have much preferred if taxes would have been the last consideration, rather than the first thing he (Malloy) talked about.
Frankly, he may not have had a choice. He lacked leverage with the state workers to really get them to do anything quickly. He had to threaten them with layoffs and other rather more dire actions to get them to make concessions. But that wasn't something he could do overnight. So, I understand that in order to present a balanced budget package that wasn't full of gimmicks and borrowing for the future, he had to lay it all on the table at once. But I thought it was unfortunate that the focus was on increases to the sales tax and income tax.
If we had our druthers, I would have hoped that the legislature would have been a better partner to him in identifying savings. If anything, I think he kind of let the legislative leadership off the hook. He took it on himself, he talked about the savings he intended to obtain from state workers. The legislature, I don't think, had to do as much heavy lifting. The legislature really wasn't forced to make hard decisions to quite the same degree.
Q: Why did you prefer raising the tax rate for the state's top income-earners over raising the state sales tax?
A: I had signed a petition that had urged the governor to create a new top bracket for the income tax. He wouldn't do it, because he was concerned that it would be higher than New York, New Jersey or Massachusetts. But I got some pushback from some people who said, "Hey, there are a lot of small businesses and S corporations that use the income tax for their filing."
That's an issue for us -- not just locally, but nationally -- when so many businesses use the income tax for filing, and yet we do not differentiate between single-earners who have a lot of passive income when making millions of dollars and small businesses. They're both treated the same way with the same tax code.
I want to stimulate small businesses as well, but it seemed to me that a millionaires' tax was a more responsible way to achieve some balanced budgeting than sales taxes, which were really regressive and were going to hurt a lot of people on limited income.
Q: What can the state do to offer quality care to senior citizens and individuals with special needs, while still controlling expenditures?
A: The state spends more than 20 percent of its total annual operating budget on Medicaid-related expenses, much of which is for senior care. With the threat of federal cuts in Medicaid grants to states, the governor had plenty of incentive to find ways to reduce spending. The Money Follows the Person federal pilot program, of which Connecticut is one of a handful of states participating, seemed to be a good basis for considering more systemic reform. Frankly, just about everyone acknowledges we need to find a way to control these costs, particularly as baby boomers begin to age into this demographic.
Although the program has been in effect only several years, it has shown promise as an efficient and appropriate approach to getting some nursing home residents back into the community, where they can be near family and friends and receive the necessary supportive services to remain healthy and safe. To be sure, this program isn't for everyone; there are a number of seniors and special-needs people who really need the more intensive care environment of a nursing home. We will always need nursing homes.
As someone with background in aging issues, and as a member of the Aging Committee, I thought it would be good if someone from the legislature could participate in the day-long strategic-planning "right-sizing" summit intended to map out recommendations and identify obstacles to broader implementation of the MFtP program. I'm glad that Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby granted me the opportunity, and I think I made a positive contribution. The report is in the early draft stage and will likely be circulated early in the new year.
Q: After Tropical Storm Irene and the October nor'easter, Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating faced a barrage of criticism from state officials and residents for their response to those storms. Where should those utilities now focus their efforts?
A: One of the things I would focus on is advanced planning and preparedness. Obviously, we need better coordination between municipalities and utilities. And then there are the more thorny issues like how many trees do we have to take down before we feel secure about the power lines.
Can we really give ourselves energy security simply by trimming trees? I'm not sure. But the utilities probably didn't do enough trimming over the years.
Part of the rest of the solution is much more revolutionary, than evolutionary. I don't think we're that far away from most households being able to install fairly efficient solar cells and have some sort of energy storage device. So when the electrical grid goes down, and the sun comes out the next day, you're taking care of 50 to 75 percent of your energy needs, and you're not waiting a week.
If we put our energy into that, in 10 years time maybe, we're not as worried about the effects of a catastrophic storm, because people are going to be more energy-independent, and we're relying on renewables as opposed to fossil fuels. We need to think outside the box and recognize that we need to change the way energy is generated and delivered.
Q: Connecticut's aging transportation infrastructure looms as a continual concern for motorists and rail commuters. What are the next steps that should be taken to improve it?
A: The demands on our infrastructure are only going to increase. We need to make sure we sequester funds that are going to be invested in transportation. We should be doing more with mass transit, transit hubs, and transit-oriented development. In the meantime, we've still got people who need to use the old roads because we haven't done a great job with mass transit.
Unfortunately, Fairfield County pays the bills, but we're not getting enough money to take care of our needs. We talk about a New Haven to Springfield, Mass., rail line. Great, it will build jobs up the I-91 corridor and build communities around those new stops. But that's going to suck up all the transportation dollars. What's going to be left for Fairfield County? How are we not only going to take care of the Metro-North main line, but of those spurs that are in ancient shape?
For a statewide transportation strategic agenda, we need some balance between brand-new mass transit projects like a New Haven to Springfield line, with at least equal funding to take care of our existing needs on the workhorse part of our transportation infrastructure, which is the Fairfield County corridor and the Metro-North line.
Q: How would you assess Connecticut's business climate?
A: We have some real challenges -- we have some high taxes, we have very high energy costs, our infrastructure needs upgrading in some ways -- but we have a great quality of life and we have some very well-trained and talented individuals. We are making some commitments to turn around the situation. I'm very proud of some of the things that were in the energy bill this past session. I was pleased with the bipartisan jobs bill we passed -- these are all signs that not only does the legislature get it, but that we are building a foundation for real change.
For a long time, we didn't do anything to grow jobs in the state, and that's why they declined. And that's why a lot of our young people left; nobody wanted to be in a state where there were no opportunities for growth.
This past jobs bill is just the beginning. We have to take it to the next step and maybe wrangle a little bit to build consensus between the two parties on some additional jobs incentives we need to put in place, and we need to look at the incentives that have been in the books for many years. Are they effective? Are they attracting business?
Q: What are your legislative goals for 2012?
A: I wanted to build on the foundation we've started on energy and jobs legislation.
I want to take the governor at his word. One of the things he said he regretted not getting into last year was education -- that's something that will also be a topic of discussion.
And the right-sizing strategic planning initiative with DSS for the Money Follows the Person program--that's going to be another major agenda item in the new year.
Significant change -- it doesn't get done in one year or one legislative session. It may take years.