With the start of the next legislative session only a month away, shoreline-area legislators sat down with local Chamber of Commerce representatives, Economic Development Commission members, residents, and business owners at the Shoreline Economic and Legislative Forum on Dec. 1 at Stony Creek Brewery to discuss key issues facing the state in the upcoming year.
State Representative Lonnie Reed (D-102), State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-98), State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101), State Representative Vincent Candelora (R-88), and State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr. (D-12) participated in this year’s forum, taking questions from moderator Ginny Kozlowski of REX Development and members of the audience.
Questions focused on four key issues that an initiative led by Kennedy this spring identified as both supporting and hampering business development: health care costs, workforce development, transportation, and energy costs.
While these issues are not new to Connecticut, the discussion acknowledged the way in which they might be tackled in Hartford could be different in light of the 2016 election. Democrats now have a smaller majority in the Connecticut House of Representatives, holding 79 seats to the Republicans’ 72 and for the first time in more than 100 years the Connecticut Senate is equally represented by 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats.
In framing the debate, Kozlowski acknowledged many of the four issues discussed can be tacked on a state level, but the state government will have to keep an eye on Washington D.C. when the new administration takes over in January.
“It is clear that government will be operating very differently on both the federal and state level,” she said. “Without previous government experience, it is extremely difficult to predict the path that president-elect [Donald] Trump will take and the impact that it will have on our state.”
Health care costs and coverage could likely see the biggest change due to actions at the federal level. As Kozlowski pointed out, Trump has repeatedly supported the complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. While the possibility of an out-right repeal of the Affordable Care Act is currently a big unknown, the panel of shoreline legislators discussed the critical components of the act and possible funding changes.
Kennedy, who serves on the Public Health Committee up in Hartford, said he doesn’t believe the federal government will push for a full repeal of Obamacare, but will more likely defund key components of the program, which could have a negative impact on Connecticut.
“I think it means a lot of people are going to lose their health insurance in our state and the practical impact is that hospitals, or anybody who relies on Medicaid as one of their primary funding streams, are going to be impacted,” he said. “You are going to see a lot more people show up at the emergency room without health insurance, so that is not good news for our acute care hospitals.”
Candelora took a different view and said he doesn’t believe changes to the Affordable Care Act will have too great an impact on the state.
“A lot of the proposals that people want to protect like extending healthcare to people to the age of 26—those proposals Connecticut already has, so at the federal level if we saw those go away or be defunded, they are still provided in the State of Connecticut,” he said.
The funding of Medicaid was also heavily discussed. Medicaid works as a match program, meaning for every dollar the state spends, it gets two dollars from the federal government, and currently makes up nearly 25 percent of the state budget.
“I have continuously advocated that Medicaid is one of the last things that we should cut in our state budget,” said Kennedy. “When you cut Medicaid by $100 million, you are actually taking $300 million out of the healthcare economy of our state.”
Scanlon said when it comes to health care at the state level, the government has tried to control healthcare costs and cited legislation passed in 2015.
“[The bill] set up a website that you can now go on and see what the cost of certain procedures are at different hospitals so you can determine what the cost will be,” he said. “It sets up, in theory, an exchange where you can try and get all of the electronic medical records for the state together in one central place, and it banned practices like surprise billing and facility fees that you see.”
According to Kozlowski, Connecticut job numbers declined by 6,600 in September and 7,200 in October, but at the same time unemployment dropped from 5.4 percent to 5.1 percent. Keeping those numbers in mind, she asked panelist what the state could do to get more people into the workforce, specifically into highly skilled jobs.
Kokoruda said the state needs to be more supportive of systems that promote a skilled workforce, like vocational-technical or vo-tech schools, where students study a specific skill or trade.
“When I hear in Hartford that we are talking about closing a couple of vo-tech schools, I know that the legislature will not let that happen,” she said. “It is a major part of our future and when we talk about Connecticut with all of our social services and our lack of young people staying here, vo-techs can be the answer.”
Reed said the state needs to support specialized job training.
“The skills gap—we hear this a lot,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs that are going unfilled. There are folks that have jobs waiting for a highly sought-out sector that tend to be millennials and 30-something’s that our whole region is competing for.”
While filling the skills gap is key, Reed said the state needs to do a better job of promoting an exciting lifestyle in Connecticut, something that will make people want to work and live in the state.
“When you are recruiting people, you need to bring these pieces together and understand all the opportunities that exist so when you are pitching you are pitching the whole universe,” she said.
Infrastructure is a long-debated issue in Connecticut. On the panel, legislators kicked around the idea of tolls, ways to fix road congestion, and the need for better public transportation.
Candelora said there are lots of conversations that need to be had around transportation, but that the government needs to come up with a long-term plan.
“I think is important is to create a 5-year or a 10-year plan regardless of how much you are going to spend,” he said. “I think we need to come together and come up with a long-term plan for transportation.”
Congestion and traffic is a barrier in the state according to Kennedy. He said the state needs better and faster public transport.
“I wonder how transformative it would be to have one-hour rail service from New Haven to midtown Manhattan,” he said. “It took less time to get from New Haven to Manhattan 100 years ago than it does today.”
Scanlon, who used to commute to Manhattan for work and described the three-hour, multi-train journey as “the worst experience of my life,” said there needs to be a plan to reduce commuting time.
“In that plan the governor put forward, which was a 30-year, $100 billion plan, there was a lot of attention paid toward rail and what it would have done was put a second track in both directions on Metro-North,” he said. “It creates an express train and a local train.”
Scanlon said both parties agree that transportation is a big issue, but the big question moving forward will be how to make effective change.
“I think before we get to the how we have to prove that we are serious about doing this,” he said. “Lock the money away so that it can’t be stolen by a Democrat or a Republican [administration] to be used for something else.”
Energy costs have been cited as a deterrent to business. Kokoruda said she often hears that the rise in energy prices is one of the top reasons businesses leave the state.
“We have to look at why taxes on energy are so high,” she said. “I agree the energy sector is one of our growing sectors with jobs, so we certainly want to encourage that, but when it comes to working with our businesses and getting them to stay here, if bringing energy costs down isn’t a part of that, then I think we are working in the wrong direction.”
Candelora said a key component to controlling energy costs is making sure businesses are informed. As a small business owner himself, Candelora said he has had negative experiences in the energy arena and was once hit with a $30,000 bill when his gas contract expired.
“Going forward we need to look at this issue for businesses and see how they can be better educated because you are worried about your business, not necessarily what you gas or electric bill is going to be,” he said.
Reed, who is the Energy & Technology Committee chair in Hartford, said changes like regionalizing energy costs would be difficult to manage, but the committee is looking at how to tackle energy costs for businesses.
“It is a very complicated system with a lot of moving parts, but we have a new comprehensive energy strategy coming out,” she said. “It is going to show us where we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We are going to be having these energy public hearings that you can contribute to.”