There were two things that State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk, Darien) and Republican challenger Jack Chiaramonte agreed on Monday during the 25th District state Senate forum at Norwalk City Hall Monday night -- that tolls should not be reinstituted on Connecticut highways and that the Act for College Readiness and Completion is a significant, valuable piece of the state's education legislation.
"What we are trying to say is that instead of going off to Norwalk Community College using your Pell Grants and student loans to take remedial course work, we really want that work to be done prior to getting to school," Duff said about the Act, which will eliminate the separate remedial courses now required in colleges.
"We are trying to save resources. We are trying to have kids who graduate high school prepared and ready for college. I think we can all agree with that sentiment. " We spend hundreds and millions of dollars on remedial course work when that work should be done by the time kids get out of high school."
"I agree wholeheartedly," said Chiaramonte, who is currently chairman of Norwalk's Board of Education as well as a small business owner in South Norwalk.
"Our kids cannot be in a position where they are leaving high school and having to take remedial courses once they get into college. Anything that can reduce that I applaud."
But on other issues such as the violent crime, transportation and the economy, the candidates did not see eye to eye.
The debate, moderated by Laurel Anderson, Trumbull's Democratic registrar of voters, opened with the question: In this time of high unemployment what are your priorities to improve our states' economy. What strengths can we build upon? And what are weaknesses we should address?
"My number one priority is getting the economy back on track and creating new jobs. We have worked in a bipartisan way over the last year with our October special session last year that culminated with a jobs program, probably the most aggressive jobs program the state of Connecticut has ever seen," said Duff, who is running for his fifth term.
"Connecticut has had no net job growth over the last 20 years. We finally got to a point where we have the executive branch working with the legislative branch to put together programs that will work."
Chiaramonte responded: "Jobs are not being created. Unemployment is at 9 percent."
He then held up a recent copy of Barron's Magazine, which placed Connecticut among the worst run states because of its finances.
"This is the front page of Barron's magazine. We are worst state in the union folks, the worst state to retire in," Chiaramonte said, referencing the cover story.
"My opponent is telling you the last 20 years have been stagnant. Sure they have. His party has ruled the legislature up there for the past 38 years. And their ideas just don't work. " You have not brought the jobs here. You can fool some of the people some of the time. You cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
"Raising taxes to ridiculous levels is not helping business. I am a small businessman. I see the effects of what this economy has done. ... We have to provide more jobs, get more people working and paying taxes. Second you have to cut spending like you do in your own home. Why don't they do that upstate? The last two years they've increased spending by $2 billion."
When Duff touted Gov. Dannel Malloy's education reform bill, Chiaramonte took the opportunity to address the Education Cost Sharing Formula.
"There is a major disconnect," he said. "We are being treated like we are very wealthy. As the chairman of the BOE, I can tell you for the last five years we have had to reduce the budget by millions. We pay the highest taxes of all the cities around us. Yet they have this perception of us. " For every dollar we send to Hartford do you know what our city gets back? Thirteen cents."
Chiaramonte pointed out that West Hartford gets $2.26 back.
"These districts upstate are taking our money from our children and funding their schools with them and this has been going on for years. I'm sorry Senator Duff, when it comes to ECS funding, you have failed us."
Duff responded by saying that ECS funding is not a partisan issue and that it remains a top priority.
"This is an issue that we all work on. We know that there needs to be changes to the formula and we have all worked very hard for that and in fact we've seen gains this year," Duff said. I can tell you that we finally have a governor who is sympathetic to our ECS problem where other governors couldn't care less. We have set up an ECS Task Force Committee to address the issue."
Duff pointed out the Committee will share recommendations in November and he is confident they will be favorable for the people of Norwalk and Darien.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The state Senate candidates also sparred over public safety when an audience member posed the question: The rate of violent crime has increased dramatically. As a state senator, what can you do to reduce the rate of violent crime in our cities?
The discussion became focused on the Risk Reduction Earned Credit program. Last month the Judiciary Committee Republicans staged a hearing and asked that the program be suspended after they said Democrats and the Malloy administration officials refused to explain how the program is administered
"First thing we don't do is we don't let criminals out on the street again," Chiaramonte said. "My opponent has voted on early release, to let sex offenders, violent criminals, three-strike violent criminals, out early. Some of those criminals who have been let out have already committed crimes, murdered, at the expense of public safety. We have revolving door justice in this state. Ten percent of the criminals are doing 90 percent of the crime. You know why, because they know crime pays. And if they get caught they know they will get out early.
"There is no way any legislator, whether you are Democrat or Republican, that you would ever possibly vote to release violent offenders," Duff said in response. "The people that he is talking about would have been released even earlier if we didn't have the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program in place. We do not have a revolving door of justice. People have to serve at least 85 percent or 90 percent of their prison terms in order to be eligible for parole. Those are the facts."
Duff said that crime in the state of Connecticut is actually down about 44 percent over the last 30 years and explained that one of the state's largest expenses is operating prisons. "We spend about $800 million a year on our prison population," Duff said, adding that because of programs like the Risk Reduction Earned Credit, the state has been able to close two prisons.
"We are taking our non-violent offenders and putting them into a program that reduces recidivism and costs," Duff said. "We are locking up our violent offenders and we are keeping them there. Forty-six other states do it. We have one of the most conservative programs out of all the other states."
Speaking of other states, Duff said he was proud of efforts to balance the state budget compared to others like New Jersey.
"We had to make some very difficult choices over the last two year's to balance our budget," Duff said. "We had one of the highest per capita deficits in the nation".We made over $2 billion in cuts. We had over $2 billion in concessions to our state employees and we also had some revenue. We worked hard to make sure what we did not do is push it down to the municipalities."
He pointed out that New Jersey did not increase any revenue on the state level. Instead it made massive cuts to education funding and municipal funding, which then resulted in a 20 to 30 percent property tax increase.
"The question is for a city like Norwalk that shares a lot of the burden for social costs, do we then push that all back on the municipalities, which would then be forced to raise property taxes even more, or do you ask people all across the state to help provide a little more to get through these difficult economic times," Duff said.
Chiaramonte painted a bleaker financial picture and emphasized a lot more needs to be done to get the "financial house in order in Hartford."
"Passing a $1.8 million dollar tax increase like you did last year is not going to help," he said.
Duff fired back that he is "bullish on the future of Connecticut" and said it's a "great place to live, work and raise a family." He reiterated that he has a plan if he is re-elected and told Chiaramonte he "has yet to hear from the other side, besides all the things that are wrong and all the things that I haven't done, what some of the things you would do yourself to help the people of this district."
"I'm not going to raise taxes because we are overtaxed as it is," Chiaramonte responded.
In his closing remarks, Duff pointed out that there is a contrast in how his and Chiaramonte's style and how they approach constituents. He is proud of his accomplishments thus far but acknowledged, "There is a lot more work to do on jobs and the economy.
"We are finally putting the needed resources into our transportation infrastructure with the I-95 project and Merritt 7, but we still have to do more. We've done a lot with education reform but we still have to do more. " I ask the people of Norwalk and Darien if you believe in your heart that I have served you well and if you think I have done a good job for you, I ask for your support on Election Day."
In his closing remarks, Chiaramonte described himself as "everyman," not a polished politician.
"I am a small businessman in Connecticut," he said. "I have served on the Board of Ed for the last five years. " This is not the Connecticut I want. That's why I am fighting. It's up to you. You see his style and you see my style. If you are looking for a change, give me a shot."