Coutu, Osten find little to agree on in debate

Candidates in the 19th state Senate race, Democrat Cathy Osten, left, and Republican Christopher Coutu, shake hands as they prepare to participate in a debate Monday in Norwich.
Candidates in the 19th state Senate race, Democrat Cathy Osten, left, and Republican Christopher Coutu, shake hands as they prepare to participate in a debate Monday in Norwich. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich — The two candidates for the 19th District state Senate seat disagreed with each other on nearly every issue during an hourlong debate Monday, accusing each other of distorting the truth, and offering contrasting opinions on handling the state debt, unionizing and cutting spending.

Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, a Democrat, repeatedly accused her opponent, Republican state Rep. Christopher Coutu, of "small inaccuracies" in comments on issues ranging from global warming to his claim that Osten "would never disagree" with Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The two candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by longtime state Sen. Edith Prague, who will retire after the election.

The community room at Otis Library was packed with supporters of the two candidates, and there was some heckling, chuckling and mumbling at various answers. Outside, prior to the debate, supporters carried signs on the Main Street sidewalk.

Questions about handling the state's debt, deficit and bonding problems dominated, as Paul Choiniere, editorial page editor for The Day, posed questions from the audience.

Coutu said he and other Republican legislators proposed cutting the state budget to 2010 spending levels in response to the yawning deficit. But instead, he said, the supermajority Democratic state government enacted a 5 percent spending increase and continued to bond for projects while imposing tax increases on numerous goods and services and on businesses.

Coutu said he supported "a no-tax-increase budget."

Osten countered that the Republican plan would have hurt Connecticut citizens young and old. She said Coutu's "slash and burn" approach would have cut $5 million from a program to address child abuse, $12 million from homeless services and $1 billion from Medicaid insurance relied on by some 600,000 children, their parents and pregnant women — one in six Connecticut residents, she said.

Osten said the state needs spending reductions, but it has to be done with "finesse," rather than with "a hatchet."

Coutu called the 2010 roll-back budget "a starting point" and said families were hurt by the hundreds of dollars in additional taxes that were approved by the Democrats.

Connecticut recently was cited as having the worst bonded debt in the nation, a situation Coutu called "an epidemic" of debt spending.

"I understand debt," Coutu said, citing his background in finance. "That has been my number-one priority, cap borrowing."

But Osten noted that much of the debt is necessary, including funding for schools — two-thirds of the state debt is school construction funding, she said — sewage treatment plants in cities and towns, roads and other infrastructure projects. Without state bonding, the towns would face the overwhelming burdens of those costs. But she agreed some bonding could be avoided.

"I would look at every project with a critical eye," Osten said.

As they did during a debate last week, the two disagreed on the $1 billion jobs bill championed by Malloy and supported by every Democrat and Republican in the legislature except Coutu.

Coutu said he proudly cast the lone dissenting vote, calling the package wasteful spending and corporate welfare to be paid for through taxes on existing businesses and Connecticut residents. Osten, however, said the bill received broad bipartisan support and she would have supported it. She said the package has helped 1,400 small businesses across the state.

Coutu quickly countered that claim — turning around Osten's criticism of his "small inaccuracies" — saying that 1,400 businesses have applied for the program.

Both candidates made repeated references to their backgrounds in the military and in various jobs over the years, saying it would help them address issues in Hartford. When Coutu several times said that Osten would never challenge the Democratic governor, Osten asserted that she has never been a follower, but always a leader.

Osten was a sergeant in the Army, a lieutenant and union leader in the Department of Correction, first selectwoman in Sprague and the eldest of seven children.

"I've been an independent voice my whole life," Osten said.

Her role as a union leader became an issue, as Coutu said Osten supported an effort in Hartford to "force" private-sector child care workers and personal caregivers to unionize by an executive order from Malloy. He said many of them did not want to have to join a union and objected to being forced.

Osten said the move was not forced unionization, and was approved by the legislature — after the executive order. She said it offered private sector caregivers the chance to earn a living wage while caring for elderly parents and children.

c.bessette@theday.com

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