19th District state Senate candidates Osten, Coutu spar over taxes, leadership during radio debate

The two candidates for the 19th District state Senate race sparred frequently during an hour-long radio debate Thursday morning and continued to trade barbs throughout the day over taxes, leadership and the recent Norwich Public Utilities rate increases.

Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, the Democratic candidate, and Republican 47th District state Rep. Christopher Coutu appeared on the Lee Elci show on 94.9 FM, and by the end of the hour had only gotten through three of the 15 questions the radio show host had prepared. The two are competing for the seat being vacated by longtime Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia.

Later, the two continued to make points and counterpoints in telephone interviews.

The radio debate turned heated when Coutu accused Osten of running an autocratic town hall in Sprague in which, he said, employees and volunteer commission members are uncomfortable. He started to say two town employees have resigned, when Osten interrupted and accused Coutu of making a libelous statement without facts.

“That is a flat-out lie. An absolute lie,” Osten said.

According to information obtained later Thursday from the town through a Freedom of Information request, former senior center director Lori Trombley resigned in February 2009 after a poor performance evaluation that included accusations of leaving work early and charging the town “for work not done.”

Former library director Barbaranne Warner resigned in March 2011 after a proposed termination for “inaccuracies and/or falsification of your time records on numerous occasions,” documents said.

When Coutu painted Osten as a labor union leader and supporter of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s tax and spending increases, Osten repeatedly asked her opponent what state spending and services he would cut and accused him of avoiding the question several times.

“Are you going to let me speak?” Coutu said after repeated interruptions.

Coutu, who prepares income tax returns for residents, said he opposes Malloy’s new Connecticut Earned Income Tax Credit. He said residents would be better off with lower gasoline taxes, sales taxes and without the expanded taxes on services ranging from dog grooming to clothing under $50.

Osten quickly fired back that Coutu’s only example of a service cut would hurt low-income families who are struggling.

“So you’re going to take away the earned income tax credit from the people who can least afford it ...,” Osten said. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Later Thursday, Coutu said the state’s $1,700 earned income tax credit comes on top of a $6,000 federal earned income tax credit to qualifying families and said the state cannot afford the extra boost.

Coutu also publicly opposed Malloy’s jobs bill, which Osten said has helped companies within both the 10-town 19th District and Coutu’s 47th House district. She said he has not supported businesses or towns within his district, including Sprague. She said many local towns have unemployment rates topping 11 percent, much higher than state and national averages.

Sprague is fighting recent sewer rate increases by Norwich Public Utilities that have affected its residents and the town’s largest taxpayer, Fusion Paperboard. Sewer rates have risen by 60 percent over the past five years, she said, costing the company $700,000.

She said Coutu refused to take a stand on the utility increases, which are also opposed by Norwich residents and businesses.

Coutu did not respond or comment on the utility increases during the debate.

The issue of the state’s prison early-release program also led to post-debate reverberations. Coutu recently issued a press release calling for Osten to support suspension of the program after a convict who was released early allegedly committed a murder.

Osten called Coutu’s move inappropriate in that he never contacted her to ask that they both support a suspension of the program, but simply contacted the press to publicize his position. When Coutu invoked support from colleague state Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, Osten quickly claimed that Suzio was lobbying for the early release of “a violent criminal.”

After the debate, Suzio disputed that claim and said he supports a suspension of the early-release program. He asked for a public apology from Osten.

Suzio did write a letter to support the release of a man convicted of embezzling $1.1 million from victims after the man had served less than 10 percent of his prison term. Osten said she would not apologize, because she believes stealing more than $1 million from victims and causing them loss of income and jobs is a violent act.

“That’s not a minor act,” she said.

Suzio said he was asked to write the letter by the convict’s frail, elderly parents who asked that he be released before they died.

c.bessette@theday.com

 

Upcoming 19th District debates

Monday, Sept. 10, 8 p.m., Otis Library, 261 Main St., Norwich, sponsored by The Day.

Tuesday, Sept. 25, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Norwich Free Academy’s Sidney Frank Center, 305 Broadway, along with 139th state House of Representatives candidates. Debate sponsored by Youth in Democracy Challenge.

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