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Ritter, Formica debate 20th District issues

Waterford — There was a full house at Wednesday night’s debate between Democrat Betsy Ritter and Republican Paul Formica, who are vying for votes in a contest to fill the 20th District state Senate seat being vacated by longtime lawmaker Sen. Andrea Stillman.

Both Formica and Ritter joined the audience of more than 150 people to give the retiring Stillman a standing ovation before the start of the hourlong debate at the new Charter Oak Credit Union Headquarters on Hartford Turnpike.

Then they got down to business answering questions about everything from plans to make the former Seaside Regional Center a state park, to how child care can be made affordable, to whether they would repeal a state tax on hospitals, to transportation and economic development issues.

Ritter, a five-term incumbent in the 38th District House seat, said making Seaside a state park is “a win for everyone in the state of Connecticut” and that she supports Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision to terminate discussions with a private developer and add the waterfront property to the state park system.

She cautioned the audience, however, to keep an eye on the state’s process to make the conversion and not on the politics.

To which Formica responded, “That’s interesting ... when it was a political announcement four weeks before the election.”

Formica, who is in his seventh year as East Lyme’s first selectman, questioned the cost of making Seaside a state park and whether neighbors would be pleased if lines of traffic snaked through their neighborhoods on busy summer weekends like they do at Rocky Neck in his town. He also questioned whether all of Waterford, or just some property owners near Seaside, supports the state park plan. Whatever the disposition of the property, he said, the decision should involve all of the people in Waterford.

In a question submitted by Lawrence + Memorial Hospital about whether the candidates would support repeal of a state cut in reimbursement funds to hospitals, Ritter said not without a clear understanding first of how to replace the funds the hospital revenues generate. The hospital also asked where the candidates stand on a suggestion last legislative session that a tax exemption for hospitals be revoked.

Formica said he would need to study the issue in a collaborative manner that included universities, hospitals, nonprofits and others with the tax exemption and see where the dialogue took them. Both of the candidates spoke of the need for comprehensive tax reform, and Ritter said she advocated for a study of the state’s tax system, which could begin that process.

“We need to focus on spending, and what happens in the budget, and we need to look under every single revenue rock,” said Formica.

While Ritter focused on her legislative experience, Formica repeatedly stated that he is a municipal leader and owner and operator of a small business.

“Who better to work on business regulations than someone who’s been in business for 31 years?” he asked.

Formica is the owner of Flanders Fish Market, a family-owned business.

Asked about assisting small businesses in the state, Ritter said she would advocate that the General Assembly’s existing Regulation Review Committee become a clearinghouse for small business issues and a place where businesspeople could bring their concerns and frustrations and have them addressed.

Later in the debate, Formica asked: “Why haven’t we been doing that the last few years?”

The candidates also were asked about education funding, Common Core and a voucher system for schools, and both praised educators for the work they do and acknowledged that public schools struggle with the funds they have.

Formica said every student deserves a quality education and standards and goals are a good thing, “but I don’t think one size fits all.

“What we want is kids who learn and can be the best they can be,” he said.

On the subject of gun control legislation, Ritter said it was the right thing to do and since passage of the legislation, there have been proven results, with 1,700 pistol permits revoked and 210 people banned from buying firearms.

“I voted for and support the measures we passed. ... I’m not interested in weakening them at all,” she said.

Formica said he would support a review of the legislation to see if anything needs to be amended.

Other topics included early release of prisoners, a defined benefit pension versus 401(k) for new state employees and how to keep retirees from moving out of state.

Ritter said many older citizens leave to get away from the cold weather and its associated costs — such as fuel bills and more expensive roadways.

Formica said, “People vote with their feet, not only to be warm but to get away from ineffective state government.”

Throughout the debate, which was sponsored by The Day and the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut with assistance from the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, the two candidates were cordial and the audience restrained.

The 20th District includes Bozrah, East Lyme, New London, Old Lyme, Salem, Waterford and portions of Old Saybrook and Montville.

Twitter: @annbaldelli


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