We have invited the incumbent State Rep. Devin Carney, and his challenger Matt Pugliese, to answer five questions which we believe are critical in the coming years for residents of the 23rd General Assembly District, which includes Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.
Whether you want to know more about where the candidates stand on the budget, tolling, affordable housing, or I-95, we encourage you to take a careful look at the answers of both candidates.
Question: As a State Representative, what do you see as key challenges and priorities in passing the next state budget?
The largest challenge is the approximately $4.5 billion deficit we will have to tackle over the next budget biennium. This deficit is largely due to unfunded state employee pension liabilities, unfunded teacher’s retirement costs, and debt service. There must be a real focus on recognizing this debt and building a budget to account for it. The legislature cannot continue to kick the can down the road.
Another challenge is the process. In my first term, the budget barely passed (I voted against it) because it was full of new taxes, new spending, and pet projects. It was handed to us in the middle of the night before the last day of the legislative session and was hundreds of pages long. This is not how the government should operate on important legislation. The budget process needs more collaboration, more focus, and less partisanship.
Paying off our debt should be priority number one because Connecticut’s economy cannot grow without reducing these costs. The state must face this debt head-on and not pass some of these payment obligations onto towns, which has been attempted. Other priorities must include funding transportation infrastructure improvements and education. Our budget should also ensure our most vulnerable residents have the services they need – especially seniors, children, and those with developmental disabilities.
I also believe the legislature shouldn’t raise taxes further and should provide some relief to Connecticut’s residents. Too many people have left or changed residency or want to leave because of the high cost-of-living in Connecticut and the state should be doing more to keep people and businesses here.
The challenges will, as always, come down to what the government must fund, what can be cut to reduce spending, and where state government can do more with the private sector to deliver services. We must develop a real plan and implement policies that will get Connecticut’s economy moving in the right direction so that our future outlook is bright. I’ve witnessed too many budgets that offer short term fixes while ignoring our future fiscal stability – that has to change.
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I believe that our key challenges will be managing the state’s pension obligations and controlling spending, while having the right strategic priorities that will grow Connecticut’s economy. Priorities is the key word. Connecticut has revenue challenges, and we want to grow our economy, not raise taxes. I’m not talking about spending more money, but spending money where it is important.
We need to have elected leaders that have a strategic vision for Connecticut’s future. We need to focus on making Connecticut a competitive place to do business – to keep existing businesses and encourage new ones to grow. We need to focus on economic development drivers that support small businesses and hard-working families. I will work to reduce the government bureaucracy and red-tape that hinders growth. We need to make it easier to run a business here in Connecticut to encourage job growth and creation.
We need to commit funding to the pension liabilities. They have been unfunded in the past, by leadership on both sides of the aisle. I do not believe that we can re-open negotiations on contracts from years ago. Not without taking on additional expenses in legal fees. The state has already made progress in negotiations, with the new Tier IV employees pensions being approximately 80% funded.
We can support workforce development, employee retention and small business growth by prioritizing education, healthcare and paid family leave. These are initiatives that benefit both business and worker, and make Connecticut regionally competitive with our neighboring states.
We need to get Connecticut’s spending under control. I’ve spent my career in the non-profit sector, where we have to run on tight budgets and maximize service delivery. I value accountability and transparency. We also need to recognize that the state’s spending goes into the community. We need to look carefully to not increase other problems and stressors through shortsighted cutting. We need a strategic approach. I will work with the non-profit organizations find opportunities to maximize service delivery and support those in need of help, at the best cost possible.
We need leaders with vision for Connecticut’s future. That is the experience I bring with over a decade of executive leadership experience of community-serving businesses.
Question: Do you support the reintroduction of tolling in Connecticut? How do you weigh the potential positives and negatives for residents of southeastern Connecticut?
My support for the reintroduction of tolling depends on many factors. This past session, the tolling legislation was inadequate and the majority attempted to rush it through despite many unanswered questions. The DOT’s plan included 72 electronic toll gantries in the state and they would be located on virtually every major highway (including 9, 11, and 2) – I believe this is a non-starter because of the amount of money this will cost Connecticut’s taxpayers (70% of toll revenue, under this plan, would come from Connecticut drivers). Connecticut residents already pay one of the highest gas taxes in the country in addition to many other high taxes, so a toll plan must ensure our taxpayers aren’t squeezed further.
I would support a toll plan designed to target out-of-state drivers and out-of-state truck drivers. This could be feasible by drastically reducing our gas tax and offering Connecticut drivers steep discounts at toll gantries (the state cannot put tolls just at our borders or just toll out-of-state drivers because it would violate federal law). A toll plan has to make financial sense for Connecticut residents and about doing what’s fair – not simply about getting as much revenue as possible regardless of who is paying. We also must know the costs of implementation, who would run the toll system, the cost of maintenance, the rate schedule, and see an actual proposed map. Only minor pieces of this information have been released by the DOT.
A positive of tolling would be that out-of-state drivers begin to pay for some of our road repairs. Another positive is that any toll revenue cannot be swept into the general fund and would have to go towards infrastructure repairs per federal guidelines. The major negative of tolling is that it could be an additional financial burden on the residents of the state of Connecticut unless certain steps are taken to offer our drivers discounts and to reduce the gas tax. In addition, a negative could be the toll gantry locations. If the DOT plan of 72 gantries moved forward, they would be everywhere. I would want to see a plan first because I have serious concerns that any plan would include the Baldwin Bridge.
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We have been debating tolls in Connecticut for years, and losing a significant source of revenue as our neighboring states collect tolls, and while Connecticut offers the free use of our roads and bridges. 48 out of 50 states have implemented tolling. The current state of our aging infrastructure is not meeting the needs of travelers and poses a serious threat to the safety of our citizens. I support installing electronic tolls on our interstate highways and believe the benefits of tolling far outweigh the potential costs. Tolls will bring revenue to fund billions of dollars in stalled transportation projects, reduce congestion, save commuters’ time, and help support business growth. Re-introducing tolls does not mean installing toll booths, but rather it will use electronic tolling technology. This reduces costs and eliminates the safety concerns and traffic associated with toll booths. I recognize that in the 23rd district, we need to use I-95 on a regular basis. I disagree with the argument that tolls are yet another tax. Tolls are a user fee, the same as when we buy a ticket to take MetroNorth. As our vehicles evolve, we have more electric vehicles on the roads that are not paying any gas tax, but are still traveling on our highways.
I support implementing methods that work to avoid tolling being a regressive tax on the middle class and ALICE families. Electronic tolling technology will allow us to have in-state discounts versus out-of-state driver rates. Our transportation infrastructure is in need of improvement and we need revenue to invest in these improvements. Tolling brings Connecticut in line with our region and improved transportation will help keep our state economically competitive.
Question: The CT DOT is currently revising and developing plans to widen I-95 between New haven and the Rhode Island border. As a state representative, will you support this widening , and how do you see your role for impacted communities if these plans move forward?
I would support widening I-95 where it makes sense, increases safety, and where it would reduce traffic – especially any plans regarding widening in Old Lyme and East Lyme. I would always take into consideration how it would affect the local area as well. Widening is not the only answer to traffic and accidents along this corridor, but it could potentially help. I have long been an advocate for additional signage and police presence in the Old Lyme/East Lyme area, so even some slight widening would allow police to safely patrol this portion of the highway.
As Ranking Member of the Transportation Committee, I would anticipate taking a large role in any discussions regarding the widening of I-95, just as I had when fighting the FRA NEC Future bypass proposal. As I have always done, I would engage my with constituents and listen to any recommendations or concerns. I have developed a strong understanding of the DOT and its policies and our transportation infrastructure over the past four years. This experience would be extremely beneficial for the people of the 23rd District in any potential conversations regarding widening and its impact.
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As someone that commutes over an hour each way on a daily basis on I-95, I am in favor of widening the highway. With the amount of vehicular traffic that goes through the southeast portion I-95, we need to make it more convenient and safer to travel. Widening the interstate as well as improving and increasing rail services are critical solutions to alleviate the congestion on our roads. I believe strengthening this infrastructure will have economic development benefits for efforts for the region. Time wasted sitting in traffic translates to lost productivity on the job and discourages new business from selecting and locating in the region. My role as state representative will be to make sure that we work in a coordinated way with the leadership of the towns to communicate the concerns of the citizens with the DOT. It is also to make sure that the information regarding the proposed widening is accurately communicated to the community. I will need to make sure that implications for economic and environmental impacts are appropriately considered.
Question: Residents in Old Lyme are currently embroiled in a lengthy and contentious approval process for an 8-30g affordable housing development proposed by Hope Partnership. Do you believe such disputes are inevitable, and how as State Representative could you help improve this process and these outcomes?
These disputes are not inevitable as it all depends on the details and location of each project. In Old Lyme’s case, the dispute is over the location of the proposed development and its proximity to I-95 and Exit 70 as well as legitimate traffic and pedestrian safety concerns – not the fact that it is an affordable housing proposal. Ferry Crossing in Old Saybrook was successful, for example, so there are not always disputes.
In 2017, the legislature made changes to the affordable housing statutes to allow towns to more easily reach state recommended affordable housing thresholds. Many communities still struggle to even come close to 10% affordable housing stock (as defined by state statute), so allowing towns more flexibility to reach an increased affordable housing inventory could help and could inspire more partnerships. I believe these decisions need to be made collaboratively, so I would look to improve ways that both developers and municipalities can work together to find common ground and locations that work for everyone.
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Finding solutions to complex problems is always going to have competing points of view and different inherent challenges. Adding affordable housing in our district is important to support our local residents and workforce. Whatever the issue, I view my role as state representative to work with our local municipal leaders and non-profit organizations to find the best ways to implement solutions for challenges our communities face. That means connecting our local leaders and non-profits organizations with resources at the state level for funding and implementation. It means having a voice and being a participant in the conversations and helping to communicate accurate information to the community.
Question: Briefly, list the three greatest challenges and three greatest strengths for District 23 over the next decade?
Three greatest challenges:
● Current and future state budget deficits and the impact on local economies
● Attracting young families to these communities and, the reverse, keeping seniors and retirees from moving
● Improving our transportation infrastructure
Three greatest strengths:
● Top quality public education
● Low mill rates which help keep property taxes lower than many other towns
● Tourism – there is a lot to offer in the district and it’s an economic engine for our communities
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I believe that the 23rd district’s greatest strengths are its location, potential for tourism, and the quality of its public education systems. The 23rd district is located in a great spot in Connecticut, able to attract residents that value a quiet, shoreline community filled with natural beauty and still commute north, east and west to urban areas for work. The potential for tourism in the district is yet-to-be maximized. We have a beautiful location on the shoreline, halfway between New York and Boston, with arts and cultural institutions and eco-tourism possibilities, as well as access by train and car from Boston and New York. Finally, we have great public schools in all four towns. A strong, progressive educational system encourages families to live in our community and support our economy.
The 23rd’s biggest challenges though are tied to these strengths. Our towns are not vibrant, urban centers that are attracting new business and the millennial generation. The population and enrollment in the school system is decreasing, and the value proposition for our high quality education in the public schools is increasingly a challenge. With the state budget crisis, funding to public schools in our districts has been drastically reduced, which will ultimately affect the quality of programs and opportunities offered to our students. We need to continue to strengthen our public schools and education to be competitive both statewide and nationally. How does the 23rd district take advantage of the potential for increasing tourism, without sacrificing the charm and character of the communities that so many residents value? Finally, the location on the coast puts our communities at risk to the impacts of sea-level rise and potential for impacts from a storm that could change the economic viability of the community for a generation.
We need leaders that will strategically consider the short and long term impacts of policy on the district, working with local leaders to build on our strengths and manage to address the challenges.
The Candidates in Brief
Matt Pugliese has spent his career working in the non-profit theatre industry, beginning at the Ivoryton Playhouse. He served as Executive Director at Oddfellows Playhouse Youth Theatre in Middletown, CT and now as Managing Director and Executive Producer at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, based on UCONN’s Storrs campus. He has been an advocate for arts, culture and youth development. Matt’s community involvement includes Old Saybrook’s Economic Development Commission since 2015, of which he was recently elected chairperson. Matt served as co-chair of the Community Foundation of Middlesex County’s Live Local Give Local 365 initiative when it was launched in 2011, and on the Board of Directors for the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce for two years. In 2012, Matt was named to the Hartford Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list for his professional work and civic involvement. In 2017, he was awarded the UCONN School of Fine Arts Public Engagement Award. He holds his BA in Theatre and Masters in Public Administration, both from UCONN. Matt lives in Old Saybrook with his wife Kristen and their two daughters.
State Representative Devin Carney is currently serving his second term in the Connecticut General Assembly representing Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, and Westbrook. He is a lifelong resident of the district and his family has been in the district since the 1950’s.
He quickly rose through the ranks of his caucus and was named the powerful Transportation Committee’s Ranking Member in only his second term. As Ranking Member, Devin has fought to improve our transportation infrastructure, prevented cuts to local public transportation, and stopped a federal rail proposal that would have devastated the district.
In addition, he serves on the Environment Committee, where he worked to protect the district’s natural resources, and the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, where he pushed to pass sustainable, balanced budgets not reliant on new taxes. Devin also co-founded the bipartisan Young Legislators’ Caucus and the Clean Energy Caucus, where he serves as co-chair. He is also a member of the Tourism Caucus.
In 2017, Devin was recognized by the Connecticut Counseling Association with their “Legislative Service” award for his work supporting Certified Professional Counselors, fighting against elder abuse, and combating Connecticut’s opioid epidemic.
Devin is an active member of the community and is always looking to give back to the area that has given him so much. He currently serves as the Treasurer of the Board for Saye Brook Senior Housing, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, and as a member of both the Lyme-Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce and the Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce.
He was born and raised in Old Saybrook and graduated from Old Saybrook public schools. He works as a Realtor in Old Saybrook and serves the shoreline area. He owns a home in Westbrook and lives in Old Lyme. He is fully vested in all four towns within the 23rd District and will continue to represent these communities with experience, dedication, and integrity if re-elected on November 6th.