League of Women Voters Describes Legislative Coffee with Darien’s State Lawmakers

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The Darien League of Women Voters recently hosted a “legislative coffee” with state senators and representatives who represent the town. The organization provided this summary of what the lawmakers talked about:

The Darien League of Women Voters held its annual legislative coffee with state legislators on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the home of Joyce and Mike Critelli.

LVW

All members of the delegation representing Darien were present including: Sen. and Majority Leader Bob Duff; Sen. and Deputy President Pro Tempore Carlo Leone; state Rep. William Tong and Rep. Terrie Wood. The legislators fielded many questions and comments raised by the audience of over 30 members and guests.

The state’s fiscal health was of great concern. The state government faces nearly $3.5 billion in budget deficits over the next two years with the biggest expense being public employees’ salaries and benefits.

The pension benefit costs are gradually coming down from their previous highs of the 1980s according to Tong, but the state cannot break its contracts with the public employees unions.

Wood pointed out that the Republicans had proposed legislation to curb future spending such as making workers pay more for healthcare and retirement benefits, eliminating mileage in calculating retirement pay and tightening limits on overtime. League members indicated that health care costs have been increasing at the rate of 8 percent per year.

At the beginning of this legislative session, a bill was introduced which would have required legislators to vote on public employee collective bargaining agreements but it was rejected on a party-line vote. Duff maintained that this procedure might cause complications because there are numerous individual unit contracts that would have to be voted on. While defined benefit pensions have been gradually phased out in the private sector, Leone and Tong noted that the current defined benefit pensions for State employees have been retained because they provide more security.

The discussion also focused on the pros and cons of regionalization. Darien is part of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (COG) which encompasses 18 cities and towns, including Stamford and Norwalk. Some legislators have maintained that regionalization would increase efficiency and reduce municipal expenses in areas such as health services and community planning.

Last spring Duff and other Democratic senators introduced an amendment to the budget bill to study proportional voting in the COGs. Many League members noted that they would like to know how this would impact small towns such as Darien. Tong pointed out that, without Norwalk and Stamford, Darien would have problems since the world is changing. Urban centers have become more attractive in the past several years and more people prefer an urban lifestyle. Suburbs are not as popular as they were in the past for corporate offices.

There was a brief discussion about the drug problems in the area. Tong opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use and recommends more legislation to curb the use of heroin. Wood suggested limiting doctors’ prescriptions for opiates to three or four days rather than seven days. Surprisingly, it was pointed out that many people get access to drugs in residents’ medicine cabinets during real estate open houses.

There was widespread agreement that better public transportation would be helpful. Bus service that allows for easier access to area cities and towns was favored by both the legislators and audience members.

Finally, in response to a question on the number of Connecticut residents moving to Florida, Tong explained that Connecticut provides many services for residents which are not provided by states with lower taxes. As far as estate taxes are concerned, Wood explained that she has introduced legislation every year for the past four years to raise the estate tax exclusion from $2 million to $5.45 million to match the federal estate tax exclusion.

After a lively two hour discussion, league members and guests came away better informed on the issues facing the state.

— by Joan Davis with contributions from Joyce Critelli, Gwen Mogenson and Laurie Williamson