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Race for 20th District Senate seat begins to take shape

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published April 02. 2014 11:00AM   Updated April 03. 2014 9:06AM

Editor's Note: This corrects an earlier version.

New London — State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, and the Republican first selectman of East Lyme, Paul Formica, each announced Wednesday that they will run for state Sen. Andrea Stillman's 20th District Senate seat.

They join Bill Satti of New London, the chairman of the New London Democratic Town Committee, in the race.

"I am very happy with the job I have in the House, but I also like a challenge. I like to take on things, grow in my job," Ritter said as she made her announcement to The Day's editorial board Wednesday morning. She represents the 38th District, which includes Waterford and part of Montville.

Later Wednesday, Formica said he would run even though East Lyme's charter would require him to vacate his first selectman position if he wins.

"I have had the most incredible opportunity to serve in this position, and I don't think I could have asked for anything more than this opportunity, but I think the state provides an opportunity and we are going to see if we can win the district," Formica said in a telephone interview.

The New London Democratic Town Committee announced last week that it was endorsing Satti for the 20th District race. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Satti said his experience on the New London City Council, Finance Committee and Board of Education would serve him well at the state Capitol.

"I am an advocate for the people," he said. "I am very hands on. I get very involved, and I think I would be the best individual to represent the district in Hartford."

Formica, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2012 against U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, said that run gave him some name recognition.

"Rep. Ritter is a public servant, both at the local and state level. I am sure she has a great following, so this isn't going to be a landslide, I don't think, on either side," Formica said. "I am just going out there and doing my best to make my case to voters of the 20th District and see what happens."

Satti, whose endorsement by his town committee came before Ritter entered the race, said this contest would be "democracy at its finest. We have to get out and talk to town committees, town leaders and town chairmen."

Ritter said she would draw on her 10 years of experience in the state House of Representatives.

"I am interested because I have really enjoyed representing the 38th District and becoming an advocate for my district and my region, and I would like to perhaps think I could continue some of the good work that Andrea has done in that respect," she said.

The two Democrats and one Republican each said they would focus on jobs, economic development, spending and funding the state's underfunded pensions. Ritter and Satti also said they would work to reduced unfunded educational mandates and to obtain state funding for special education, while Formica said he wanted taxes and spending moderated.

None of the candidates would take a firm position on whether they support "reverse PILOT," a bill that would eliminate the property tax exemption of nonprofit colleges and hospitals. Whoever is elected would represent East Lyme, Montville, New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Salem, Waterford and Bozrah. New London residents, where nearly half of the properties are tax-exempt, would benefit particularly from the bill.

"I am not sure that the current incarnation of (the bill) is exactly where we want to be," Ritter said. She said she would want to know what the implications would be for the hospitals and colleges.

A municipality that is home to a nonprofit college or hospital is supposed to receive 77 percent of the value of the associated lost tax revenue through the state's Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. Last year, municipalities received only about 32 percent through PILOT. Municipalities with state-owned properties are supposed to receive 45 percent of that lost tax revenue, but received only about 23 percent last year.

Satti said he wants to know where the balance of those funds were going because the revenues were still going to the state. He said taxing nonprofits would be a "knee jerk reaction" and that the state should be looking at comprehensive tax reform.

Formica also said the state should have comprehensive tax reform, not "piecemeal" measures such as the reverse PILOT.

Although the state passed its largest tax hike in recent history, $1.5 billion annually, in 2011 and has continued to increase spending by about 2.8 percent annually since the recession, Ritter said spending growth was modest and the funds were needed for programs to create jobs.

"We can ... eliminate programs and bring costs down," she said.

Satti said state spending should be "more under control."

East Lyme's revitalized downtown and few vacant buildings speak to the economic development work he has been a part of, Formica said. He said that the state couldn't sustain more tax increases and that lawmakers need to look at spending first.

They each said they would spend money on the state's pension system, which is underfunded by about $24 billion.

Others mentioned as possible candidates for the 20th district Senate seat — state representatives Ernest Hewett of New London, Kevin Ryan of Montville and Ed Jutila of East Lyme -- did not respond to calls for comment. Ritter said, however, that her fellow Democrats in the local delegation, would not be running.

Thomas "Tony" Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, has said he is not running for Stillman's seat.

j.somers@theday.com

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