Tolls and economic recovery split state candidates in debate

The Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate for the state senator seats for Westport on Tuesday. Taken Oct. 13, 2020.

The Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate for the state senator seats for Westport on Tuesday. Taken Oct. 13, 2020.

DJ Simmons /Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Candidates hoping to represent the town in the state Senate found common ground on local control and holding utility companies’ responsible for their recent failures, but toed party lines on the subject of tolls in a debate on Tuesday.

The forum was the second sponsored by the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce and Westport Library and featured state Sen. Will Haskell, D-26, his Republican challenger Kim Healy, state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28, and his Democrat challenger Michelle McCabe.

The 26th state Senate District also covers Bethel, Redding, Ridgefield, Wilton, New Canaan and Weston. The 28th state Senate District also includes Easton, Fairfield, Newtown and Weston.

Candidates were split on the subject of tolls to address the state’s infrastructure with Democrats favoring the move.

Haskell said the Metro North train has gotten slower between stops since the 1970s, which highlighted a decline in infrastructure.

“By every metric we’re moving in the wrong direction and it’s because we give out-of-state drivers and trucking companies a free road as they have a wear and tear on our highways,” he said. “We have not made the necessary investments in our infrastructure.”

Hwang said he believed infrastructure needed to be addressed, but in a collaborative public-private dynamic. He added the the legislative majority and the governor could not get the majority to agree on tolls.

“When you look at tolls and the infrastructure bill that was proposed, it was poorly thought out, it was a one-party rule plan, and ultimately it did not have the bipartisan support,” he said, adding deliberative bi-partisan discussion was needed.

Healy echoed similar sentiments.

“There’s a lot of other things we should be doing first before tolling people,” she said. “It’s regressive and it hurts the middle class.”

Candidates roundly praised local efforts in assisting the state’s mitigation of the coronavirus, but differed a bit on the economic recovery related to the pandemic.

Healy said at the onset of the pandemic the state had the fourth highest death rate in the country, but highlighted some progress was made.

“I think we have good controls now,” she said. “Our numbers are good. Connecticut has been doing a really good job, I think that a lot of that comes from our local representatives.”

She said it will also be important to have legislators in place to help small businesses stay open during these hard times.

Haskell noted the state spent a greater percentage of federal aid on K-12 schools than anywhere else in the country.

“If we want to get people back to work we also have to get kids back into school full time,” he said. “But it’s got to be done safely. That’s why I’m such an advocate for making sure politics does not get in the way of science.”

Hwang said legislators with experience are key with the many challenges the state faces. He said the state was going to have a monumental challenge to provide essential services with a depleted rainy day fund.

“Having been through a budget process, having been through difficult decision making processes, we are experienced to address it,” he said. “The people that we represent need us more than ever with the experience to guide us through the challenges at hand.”

But McCabe said the state needs a group of legislators in Hartford who are championing new ideas and creativity.

“I think what’s great about having new people run for office like myself is it’s not that we lack experience because what we have is valuable experience,” she said. “It’s valuable boots on the ground experience that exists outside the world of career politicians.”

McCabe said while loans can help small businesses, resources should be allocated to find creative ways to help them stay afloat, such as a consumer confidence program or investment in curbside pick ups for areas like Main Street.

“During this crisis we can do a lot more to help our small businesses pivot during this critical period in a way that can help them maintain their own businesses versus handing out loans,” she said.

The four candidates generally agreed more oversight on utility companies was needed after their failed response to Tropical Storm Isaias.

“Some of it is not necessarily using a stick,” McCabe said. “We need to dramatically increase competitiveness in the energy market and especially by supplying more options that are green options.”

Candidates also roundly supported local control on zoning matters to help address affordable housing.

“It’s not either or,” Haskell said. “You can have local control of zoning and you can have more workforce housing.”