Progress report: What are Westport's state reps working on in Hartford?

WESTPORT — Now that the 2019 legislative session is over halfway done, the Westport News checked-in with Westport’s voices in Hartford to see what they’ve done in the legislature thus far on behalf of town residents.

Will Haskell, D-26

The newest town representative, Westport’s own wunderkind Will Haskell said he has worked in Hartford to follow through on his campaign promises, especially when it comes to gun violence prevention legislation.

Haskell proposed legislation to enable officers to ask someone carrying a gun if they have a permit, submitted a bill to ban ghost guns, and introduced another draft law to mandate safe gun storage.

“I respect the Second Amendment, but I don’t see where it says a guns can be stored under a bed and don’t need to be locked up,” Haskell said.

All three of these gun violence prevention bills made it out of the Senate Judiciary committee but, like most bills at this point, have not yet been called for a vote by the full senate.

Haskell is also working to give a tax credit to state businesses that provide student loan relief for their employees.

“As the youngest member of the General Assembly, I do think student loans are an overlooked issue and a big problem for our economy,” Haskell said.

Overall, Haskell said he has worked to maintain relationships with legislators across the aisle, but noted the partisanship is Hartford has been frustrating.

“This is a building steeped in tradition and I came in with the expectation that I could change everything, but I only have one vote out of 36,” he said.

Tony Hwang, R-28

State Sen. Tony Hwang also represents a portion of Westport and reported he has been focused on crafting a sustainable and realistic state budget.

New Gov. Ned Lamont’s ideas for generating revenue in light of an overwhelming budget deficit will largely harm residents at the local level, Hwang said.

Hwang criticized Lamont’s proposal to transfer 25 percent of the teachers pension liability from the state to municipalities, saying the move would results in local property tax increases.

“We need a budget that works and respects the overwrought and overtaxed middle class in communities that feel burdened by local, state, and federal property taxes,” Hwang said.

Proposals from the governor and other legislators to put new taxes on a whole range of services from legal and accounting work to greens fees for playing golf only add to Connecticut’s reputation as an overtaxed state, Hwang said.

“We are using all kinds of mechanisms to raise revenue because we’ve not made any dramatic cuts to government spending,” Hwang said, adding elected officials needs to recognize the state’s budget problem and make challenging decisions to rectify Connecticut’s financial health.

Gail Lavielle, R-143

State Rep. Gail Lavielle has been a leader in the opposition to school regionalization plans proposed by fellow legislators.

“I spent a lot of time helping constituents oppose it. There were a number of proposals that could have led to some very marked interference by the state in the business of high-performing school districts like Westport and that is exactly what we didn’t want to see,” Lavielle said of the school regionalization legislation.

High-performing districts like the ones she represents in Westport and Wilton already share resources and don’t need a law to tell them they can, she said. Instead, the legislature needs to break down barriers, such as binding arbitration laws, that prevent resource sharing among school districts, Lavielle suggested.

“We were able to quash some of the ideas that came out, but I don’t think its over yet,” Lavielle said.

Like Hwang, Lavielle said she is concerned about efforts to make towns pay a portion of the teachers’ pension costs as outlined in the governors budget and noted she has worked to decrease government costs as ranking member of the house appropriations committee.

“Its very disturbing because there’s a lot of holes in the budget and very few proposals so far for actually getting rid of excess fat,” Lavielle said.

Lavielle also noted she has challenged benefits for state employees because 98 percent of taxpayers are not getting comparable benefits, as employees of the private sector yet have to pay for the state union members benefits.

“They always talk about union concessions, but never cost to taxpayers,” Lavielle said.

Jonathan Steinberg, D-135

The Tobacco 21 bill, which state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg has worked on in his capacity as chair of the Public Health Committee, will have a significant impact on the health of Westport’s youth, he said.

The bill would raise the age for purchasing tobacco and vaping products to 21, Steinberg said, adding, “We have a vaping problem, virtually an epidemic.”

In addition to the vaping bill, Steinberg is working on a tax on sugary drinks.

“I hate to resort to taxes to accomplish this, and we will have education as well, but these bills matter a lot because they will help people make healthier choices,” Steinberg said.

The opioid crisis, and efforts at early intervention, new treatment modalities, and aid to health care providers on the front lines of the epidemic, are also central focuses of his.

“I’m also one of the people trying to make the case for why Connecticut needs tolls,” Steinberg said. “This is an urgent need to reduce highway congestion.”

Overall, Steinberg said the new governor and slate of new legislators have infused this session with more energy than ever before.

“In my nine years, I have never experienced anything quite like this,” he said.

With only a little over a month left until the close of the legislative session, the Westport News will be watching to see if town’s legislators keep up the energy — and governing — until they cross the finish line on June 5.; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1