Editor’s note: This is the third installment in our series on new Republican Town Committee members.

WESTPORT — In 1984, when ITT Inc. asked Gunnar Hovstadius if he wanted to leave Sweden for a three-year stint in the U.S., he said yes, moved to Westport with his family and never went back.

This year, motivated by fears Connecticut’s economy may become more like Sweden’s, Hovstadius, who became a U.S. citizen two years ago, joined the Republican Town Committee to help get the state’s economy under control, he said.

“I’m constantly comparing the U.S. with Sweden. When I got here in ’84, there was no income tax in Connecticut, there was a sales tax of 4 percent, and the state was running a surplus,” Hovstadius, 74, said.

At the same time, the Swedish government increased taxes while expanding the country’s social safety net, Hovstadius said.

“They started taxing people and corporations more and more and more, and eventually, they left. It’s beginning to happen here too,” he said.

In the years since he moved to the state, Connecticut governors increased spending and the number of state employees to an unhealthy level, which resulted in a doubling of the state’s income tax and a huge deficit, in addition to an exodus of businesses and their high-paid executives, Hovstadius said.

“We’re losing a lot of the income of high-paid people when they leave and it seems like Sweden all over again,” he said.

Like most of his fellow new members to the Republican Town Committee, Hovstadius joined primarily because of his concerns about the economy of Connecticut, which has a population about a third of Sweden’s.

Hovstadius has the mind of an engineer because, well, he was one. He specialized in pump systems and was a senior vice president at ITT before retiring to consult on pump systems for the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Standards Organization.

A strong society can only be engineered atop a strong economy, Hovstadius said. “I’m not extremely conservative when it comes to social things. I’m probably more of a liberal in that area, but I think the economy is the foundation for having a good social system,” he said.

Sweden was one of the three wealthiest countries in the world when Hovstadius was a kid, but the expansion of the social welfare system and congruent increase in taxes led people and businesses to flee the country and resulted in a breakdown in the engineering of Swedish society, he said, saying more Swedes live below the European Poverty Line now than 30 years ago.

“A good economy enables a lot of social programs and other programs that people want, but if you start ruining the economy, then you can’t afford all the goodies you want to have,” Hovstadius said. “If you start to let the economy go to hell, then you won’t be able to afford social programs and you get a negative spiral that goes down and gets worse and worse.”

While the parallels between Sweden’s issues and Connecticut’s situation haunt Hovstadius, he said one thing sets the two apart.

“In this country, people are much more involved at the local level than they are in Europe,” he said.

svaughan@hearstmedia

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