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State House hopefuls face off in debates at Groton Public Library

Groton  Should any audience member have sat through both debates at Groton Public Library Wednesday evening, that person may have had a feeling of déjà vu by the time the second debate ended.

Democratic candidates repeated similar lines, as did their Republican counterparts, in the debate for the 40th House District, which covers Groton and part of Ledyard; and in the debate for the 41st House District, which covers Groton and the southern part of New London.

The debate was sponsored by The Day, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut.

Facing off first were 40th District incumbent Rep. Edward Moukawsher, a Democrat, and Republican John F. Scott, a member of Groton's Representative Town Meeting. The 41st District debate followed, again with a Democratic incumbent, Rep. Elissa Wright, facing a Republican challenger, Aundre Bumgardner.

Bumgardner, 20, recently moved back to Groton from Florida, where he was attending Stetson University, according to his campaign website.

Economic issues dominated both debates, with the role of transportation in the state economy taking a central role.

The Democratic incumbent candidates both touted their roles in developing plans for a water taxi from New London to Groton, for which Moukawsher said he believed there may be state funding. Scott said he supports developing a water taxi service and believes it would be worthy of investment for the sake of the economic development it may promote.

Where candidates of the same party split was on the question of reinstating tolls on Interstate 95. Candidates for the 40th District both said they were on the fence about whether tolls were a worthy endeavor. Bumgardner said he would support tolls on state borders, but only after seeing improvements in public transportation throughout the state.

Wright was the only candidate to come out firmly in support of the tolls.

Candidates also took stands on development opportunities and tax cuts for businesses. The Republican candidates derided their Democratic opponents for not finding permanent tenants for Pfizer and allowing portions of the company's vacant buildings to be demolished. Moukawsher meanwhile praised the state's decision to donate a portion of the buildings to bioscience network Connecticut United for Research Excellence.

The candidates split along party lines when it came to a question about their support of the gun control law the legislature passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown. Moukawsher and Wright both said they support measures the state had taken, with Wright suggesting regulations be expanded to include greater control of plastic guns that can be manufactured using 3D printers.

In contrast, Scott and Bumgardner said they would like to see the law repealed. Both Republicans said the solution to gun violence lies in increasing availability of support and treatment of mental health rather than in gun control laws.

Candidates in the 41st District responded to an additional gun control question from the audience, regarding allowing hunting on Sundays. Bumgardner said he supports allowing Sunday hunting, while Wright said she believes the current ban should be upheld.

Wright and Bumgardner agreed that magnet schools could provide a solution for Groton's issue of racial segregation in its schools. Wright went further to suggest that racial segregation in schools should be viewed from a regional vantage point rather than on a municipality by municipality basis.

"I think achieving racial balance in our schools is a very, very important goal. It's a laudable goal," said Wright.

Bumgardner noted his success having received his education in magnet schools.

On state spending, 41st District candidates agreed that the legislature should take measures to fully fund the pension system and Wright said she believes those in office were on the right track with current funding levels.

Scott set himself apart from his opponent in the 40th District race by advocating for transferring state employees to 401(k) and Individual Retirement Account plans to save the state money.

Both Republican candidates advocated greater restrictions on state spending, with Bumgardner pushing for fewer transfers among state accounts.

"The state definitely needs to take a look at its budget. I think we need to review how we provide services," said Scott.

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

This article was edited to correct the age of Aundre Bumgardner.

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