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Gubernatorial Candidates Float Big Ideas: No Income Tax, Free College

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As Connecticut’s economic funk persists and the state’s elected leaders remain unable to pass a budget, the growing roster of candidates looking to become governor face an increasingly pressing question: What’s your big idea for saving the state?

“It won’t be enough for candidates in either party to win by not being Dan Malloy,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican political strategist who has advised past gubernatorial candidates. “I think you need to explain to voters how you’re going to fix the mess” the state is in, she said.

The mess is substantial: There’s currently no agreed-upon plan to solve a projected two-year $3.5 billion deficit. Corporate leaders want a strategy for reviving the state’s cities and are decrying Connecticut’s business climate. This summer, Aetna announced plans to move its headquarters out of the state, following General Electric’s decision last year.

Bill Curry, the former state comptroller who twice ran for governor as a Democrat, said the rise of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has led to a flood of people running on populist platforms.

Ultimately it will be up to voters to discern whether or not candidates believe in their ideas and will have the ability to follow through with them, Curry said.

“Good ideas, honestly stated, mean a great deal” in an election, he said.

Since Malloy announced in April that he wouldn’t seek a third term, more than 20 candidates on both sides of the aisle have expressed an interest in running for governor.

The Courant polled the 13 Republicans and Democrats who have formed candidate committees or exploratory committees for statewide office and are actively raising money for 2018.

Candidates were asked a simple question: What’s one idea you have to fix Connecticut? The answers were as varied as the candidates who so far have entered the race.

End State Income Tax

Mark Boughton, the Republican mayor of Danbury who is making his third gubernatorial bid, wants to phase out the state income tax, which contributes about $9 billion annually to the state budget.

“There are nine states right now that do not have a state income tax and they are far outpacing … Connecticut,” he said.

Boughton said state government has become “wedded to the state income tax,” describing it as a “golden cash cow” that has allowed government to grow exponentially.

Eliminating the tax would be accompanied by the downsizing of government and “some pain,” “but there’s also going to be a really good economic stimulus that will in the end create more jobs.”

Tuition-free College Education

Middletown Mayor Dan Drew wants to see Connecticut adopt tuition-free college education — a proposal that was a key piece of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“New York is doing it, Rhode Island is about to do it,” he said. “We need to do it or else we’re going to have our lunch eaten.”

Drew favors higher taxes on the wealthy, legalizing and taxing marijuana and ending the practice of giving government loans and grants to businesses as a form of economic development.

“We need to make a greater level of public education available to people here to stop outmigration and make sure we have the smartest, most skilled and sophisticated workforce in the world.”

A ‘Roosevelt Island’ In Connecticut

Steve Obsitnik, a Westport executive and financial adviser, envisions a Connecticut version of Roosevelt Island, where New York City officials partnered government, universities and businesses to spur high-tech development.

“What underlies this ecosystem is how we improve the vibrancy of our cities,” said Obsitnik, a Republican.

Obsitnik proposes a microeconomy focused on health care around New Haven; a financial technology and services hub in Stamford; and an emphasis on skilled manufacturing near Electric Boat and Sikorsky.

“We can provide land, which we have a lot of, and we can bring some money, but [companies] have to bring the lion’s share,” he said. “We will give a little money, some space and a lot of support to make it happen.”

Lower Business Taxes

State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton, said Connecticut has to address its tax policy and lower taxes on businesses.

“That drives everything else,” she said.

Tax cuts would be paid for by reducing the cost of state government. While the Malloy administration and unions reached a 10-year deal on benefits, Boucher said she would ask unions to come to the table voluntarily to negotiate further.

Lower taxes would also help Connecticut stem its population loss, she said. Boucher said the state needs to stop targeting businesses and high-income earners for additional revenue. Her district includes many wealthy residents who pay a large share of the state’s income tax.

“You don’t help the most vulnerable by attacking and pushing away those that pay the largest amount of taxes,” she said.

Across-The-Board Tax Cuts

Peter Lumaj, a Fairfield attorney who ran for secretary of the state in 2014, said he would initiate an across-the-board tax cut to spur growth and development in the state.

Lumaj, a Republican, would immediately lower the state income tax by 1 percent, eliminate it for residents making under $100,000 and phase the tax out entirely over eight years.

Other reductions would include returning the corporate tax rate to 7.5 percent and decreasing the state sales tax from 6.35 percent to 6 percent.

An agreement reached by the Malloy administration and state employee unions and approved by the legislature has locked in employee benefits until 2027, Lumaj said.

“The only way for us to get out of this mess … is through growth,” he said.

A New Economic Development Strategy

Kevin Lembo, the Democratic state comptroller, said he would focus less on offering incentives to big companies and would instead invest more broadly in the state’s economy.

As an example, Lembo said he voted against a $22 million state package for Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, “but if that package were 22 $1 million grants for jobs that build the middle class or companies like Sikorsky that support outer supply-chain jobs, benefit the greater economy and help build Connecticut’s middle class and working families,” he said, “then I would’ve voted yes in a heartbeat.

“Connecticut must fundamentally change its economic development strategy,” Lembo said. “The current system of throwing tax dollars at wealthy companies and begging them to stay in our state … must be replaced.”

Lembo, who formerly was the state’s health care advocate, has also pushed for a public health care option at the state level.

Change Retiree Health Care

Republican David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, wants to rein in the state’s unfunded liabilities by dramatically reforming retiree health care. Walker said he would require a minimum 10 years of service by all employees to receive a retirement health plan.

Walker said he would require new employers to pitch in for retirees who take on part-time jobs after retirement.

Retiree health care under his administration would be equal to, or better than, what retirees would get from a Fortune 100 company, Walker said. The problem, he said, is the current state plans are much more generous than those companies offer.

Make Cities a Priority

Joe Ganim, the Democratic governor of Bridgeport, said his top priority would be to make cities the “drivers of the new Connecticut economy.”

Strong urban centers, Ganim argued, would further strengthen the communities around them and the state as a whole. “All of our major cities could be one budget away from where Hartford is right now,” Ganim said, referring to the capital city’s consideration of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

One way to strengthen the cities, according to Ganim, would be to put some kind of cap on property tax levels, which he said were some of the most aggressive taxes in the state. Cities in Connecticut are over-reliant on the taxes, Ganim said. The reductions would be in partnership with the individual cities – it wouldn’t be a rigid cap.

Shift State Services to Private Sector

Republican state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan said Connecticut needs to shift costly state services to the private sector, including care for the developmentally disabled.

Srinivasan wants to accelerate the closing of Southbury Training School, which has more than 220 severely disabled patients but costs tens of millions of dollars a year to operate.

“I have always been a strong proponent of switching care from state agencies” to private nonprofits, he said.

Srinivasan said there are too many “inefficiencies and waste” in services the state provides, including millions in unnecessary overtime. He believes nonprofits can provide the same services at a lower cost.

Make Connecticut Affordable Again

Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, a Republican, hasn’t increased the property tax in his city for the past nine years and wants to bring that same practice to Hartford.

Lauretti said holding the line on taxes, and eliminating taxes like the estate tax and the business entity tax, would require “reining in” the cost of benefits and bringing public-sector pay more in line with the private sector.

“We need to make Connecticut affordable again,” he said.

A stable tax rate would help businesses plan for the long term and make them more likely to remain in the state, Lauretti said.

Focus On Software Development

Jonathan Harris, a Democrat who most recently served as commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection, said he would ingrain software development into the education curriculum at all levels to ensure Connecticut can thrive as a hub in the innovation economy.

“We have numerous assets that are being ignored — our educated populations, the skills that we have, an international airport, we’re in between two metropolises, and we need to start connecting the dots better,” Harris said. “We have the brains to be on the cutting edge of software development, which runs everything in the world now.”

The emphasis on software development and writing code would be included at all levels, from elementary education to college, Harris said.

Restore Trust In Government

Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor known for helping to send former Gov. John G. Rowland back to jail, said his priority is to regain public trust in government.

For that reason, Mattei, a Democrat, has said he’s refusing to accept donations from lobbyists during his campaign.

As governor, Mattei said he would strengthen disclosures by what he called “dark money third party groups,” reform the redistricting process to make it “truly nonpartisan,” and push to overturn Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case that banned restrictions on donations by corporations and other associations.

“There’s no one silver bullet that will fix the problems of the our broken system,” he said.

End Health Care For Elected Officials, Reform DMV

Tim Herbst, the Republican first selectman of Trumbull, wants to end what he described as “extraordinarily generous” health care plans for state workers, including current and former elected officials.

He recently requested health care information for federal officeholders from Connecticut and found most opted for the state plan rather than Congress’ health insurance.

Herbst, who has said he would not take a pension if elected governor, also said he wants to completely overhaul the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which has been plagued by long lines.

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