Westport lawmakers talk vaccinations, tolls

WESTPORT — Among usual talking points of deficits and tolls, the issue of vaccinations stood out at a community conversation hosted by state lawmakers at the Westport Library on Wednesday.

Hannah Gale, a Fairfield resident, said she disagreed vehemently with the desire to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations in Connecticut.

“The ideas regarding herd immunity are based on much older times when there was a lot of wild measles unfortunately in the population,” she said.

Gale added she was Jewish and it was against her religious beliefs.

“It’s not true that there’s a uniform religion of Judaism that says you should do this,” she said. “There are many rabbis who disagree and follow the religious opinion you have the right to protect your own life before potentially harming someone else.”

T.J. Elgin, a Westport resident, said forced tolls or vaccinations without real conversation would lead to a large impeachment process for the governor.

“There’s already a group forming,” he said.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, said it was his responsibility to protect public health as chair of the Public Health Committee.

“We’ve had a measles problem in this country and I don’t want to see it happen in Connecticut,” he said. “When people don’t get vaccinated they’re not just taking a risk on their own behalf, they’re putting others at risk.”

Steinberg said he was open to medical solutions and more information.

“We need a strong science-based approach to protecting everybody,” he said, adding he would most likely vote to repeal the religious exemption for vaccines next year.

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-26, said he has had several conversations with doctors as well as families opposed to vaccinations.

“I’m not convinced of the religious nature of these objections,” he said. “I think it’s largely based on sometimes discredited scientific studies.”

Haskell said First Amendment rights stop when other people become endangered.

“The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has said when the immunization rate drops below a certain herd immunity, the other kids in classrooms are endangered,” he said.

Other topics discussed included the recently passed state budget, which Haskell said included many difficult decisions.

“Something that I’m a big fan of, and it probably didn’t make many headlines, is the fact we spent $1.7 billion towards paying down pensions,” he said. “$1.5 billion of that went towards paying off yesterday’s mistakes.”

Unfortunately, a tremendous amount of debt was inherited, he said, but this would not be a continued mistake.

“We’re not going to kick the can down the road any longer,” Haskell said. “We not only paid off those debts from previous generations, we also then made sure we are fully funding the pensions of current employees and future retirees.”

Haskell noted he was also proud to vote for a plastic bag ban, which scaled up a similar ban passed in Westport a decade ago.

“It’s going to make a real dent in making sure we’re leaving something for our kids and grandkids,” he said.

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28, said it was important to note Hartford was not Washington D.C., and 90 percent of the bills in the senate are passed by bipartisan.

“We have to work together,” he said. “I truly believe for us to be truly effective we have to get through our differences and work together.”

Hwang said his belief was that bigger government doesn’t create wealth — people do. He said one of his concerns coming out of the legislative session was the state being in a constant deficit and $1 billion in additional sales tax revenue with no cuts.

“For me, the biggest challenge we have is we our living in a world of deficit- minded budgeting,” he said.

Hwang said he continues to work closely with Haskell on creating an educated work force ready to meet the needs of future businesses.

“We now allow our private colleges to create curriculum and programs without coming to the state’s department of education,” he said, adding this would allow private colleges to make innovative programs.

Steinberg said growing up in Westport and now representing the town has made his job a labor of love, noting he was particularly proud of the passage of a minimum wage bill and the plastic bag ban.

“We did a number of good things in the budget,” he said. “My qualms sometimes have more to do with the language of the bills than the concepts behind them.”

Steinberg said he was in favor of tolls in order to ensure out-of-state drivers contribute to fixing roads in the state, as hundreds of projects related to transportation have gone unfunded for decades.

“It seems other states are able to manage having tolls and their businesses adjust,” he said. “Every other state is able to collect a percentage of toll revenue from out of state drivers and truckers. Why not Connecticut?”