WESTPORT — In the race for the 136th House seat it’s easy to get caught up in the fray of personal attacks flying between incumbent Democrat Jonathan Steinberg and Republican challenger Greg Kraut.

Both candidates have depicted the other as animals. In a recent mailer, Steinberg included a picture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing next to the heading “Greg Kraut isn’t who he appears to be.”

Over the summer, Kraut posted an Instagram photo of what appears to be a mole swimming in Southampton, New York with the caption “I am pretty sure my opponent was not here...just kidding!”

The Westport News talked with both Steinberg, 63, a lifelong Westporter first elected to the seat in 2010, and Kraut, 42, a recent transplant to town who joined the Representative Town Meeting last year, to cut through the noise and get at the issues.

Pension liabilities

Both Kraut and Steinberg have plans to decrease the state’s ballooning unfunded pension liabilities through monetization of state real-estate assets, but that’s as far as the similarities between their plans go.

As Chairman of the Pension Sustainability Commission, Steinberg has introduced a plan to donate state real estate assets as an in-kind contribution to an independent trust that would monetize the assets and donate all of the asset’s profits to the pension funds.

“This is neither government nor is it the pension funds themselves. It’s an independent trust whose responsibility is to optimize the value of those assets,” Steinberg said of the trust.

Never before tried in the United States, Steinberg’s plan, known as the legacy obligation trust model, has been tried in several European countries and Steinberg says will enable the state to not only optimize the asset’s value but also the advantage of getting the current value in the market as opposed to the asset’s government listed book value.

Meanwhile, Kraut proposes a plan to sell and leaseback state-owned and underutilized office buildings. The privately owned buildings would contribute to the tax rolls and could potentially provide the state $1 billion in new revenue, Kraut said, adding sale-leasebacks have been used for over 30 years in states like California, Massachusetts, and Virginia as well as in many private sector corporations.

“Sale-leaseback provides upfront cash proceeds in as little as 90 days. It would maximize the value of non-earning real-estate assets and you’d actually get top-dollar for those assets because you’d have the full rate and credit of the state government backing it,” Kraut said.

Taxes

Lowering the state income tax for high earners is central to Kraut’s campaign.

A 6 to 7 percent income tax for high earners as is currently present in the state is pushing wealthy residents to leave the state and take their spending power and tax revenues with them, Kraut said, arguing the income tax should instead decrease to the four percent range for high earners.

Since Connecticut instituted an income tax in 1991 the number of high paying jobs in the state has dropped from 158,000 to 124,000, Kraut writes in his state economic plan, available on gregkraut.com. “It (CT) is the only state in the region that has not recovered jobs from the 2008 recession, with more residents lost to Florida (0% income tax) than any other state. Most studies show that besides corporate tax cuts, lowering state tax burdens is the top economic driver of growth,” Kraut writes, adding that he also supports the elimination of the gift, social security, and pension taxes.

Steinberg, likewise, is firmly opposed to Kraut’s plan to reduce the state income tax by 25 percent and says the plan will more than double the state’s deficit to $10 billion. “That means things the state does, it will cease to do and that will push things back on the municipalities. Westport doesn't’ get much from the state, but when it comes to things like paving the roads and taking care of the bridges, if the DOT (Department of Transportation) is out of money, that’s going to fall back on the municipalities and municipalities would have to raise local property taxes to make up the difference,” Steinberg said.

Nuisance taxes should go, however, Steinberg said, adding he wants to explore reforming the business entity tax and pegging the estate tax to other states and not the federal government.

Tolls

Steinberg is in favor of congestion pricing tolls with a lock box so toll profits go directly to infrastructure investments. On the other hand, Kraut says he’d vote against tolls and argues the state should cut wasteful spending and modernize its current revenue streams before imposing another tax on residents.

Guns

Steinberg voted for all the post-Sandyhook gun regulation reforms and said he plans to vote to ban ghost guns if re-elected. “I also want to look at ways we can make homes more gun safe to reduce the number of accidents and suicides that occur in the home, which are a huge number of gun deaths on an annual basis,” Steinberg said.

Kraut said he also supports stronger gun regulations in the state but declined to elaborate further on the issue.

Recreational marijuana

If he was elected and a bill came before the house for the legalization of recreational marijuana, Kraut said he would vote ‘No.’ The lack of a breath test for marijuana is concerning, Kraut said, adding his research into other states where recreational marijuana has been legalized doesn’t show the endeavor is very profitable and the state should look to raise revenue in other ways.

Steinberg gave a qualified “Yes,” to the question of whether he’d support the legalization of recreational marijuana, saying he’d want the program to be strictly regulated like Connecticut’s medical marijuana program. “I remain concerned about the impact of marijuana smoking on the developing brain and particularly teenagers,” Steinberg said, adding he is also worried about the lack of a method for officers to determine marijuana impairment because THC stays in the system much longer than alcohol.

“The last thing I want to see is Connecticut adopt recreational marijuana simply because we’re desperate for money,” Steinberg said.