At business breakfast, Republicans say legislature has 'declared war on small businesses'

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Norwich — With a panel of mostly Republicans, local state representatives and one senator described their reactions to the recently completed legislative session as frustrated, concerned, disappointed and dismayed.

Six Republican and two Democratic officials spoke at the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce's biannual legislative breakfast on Tuesday.

The same legislators were present at this one and the last breakfast in December: Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme; Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme; Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin; Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard; Rep. Brian Lanoue, R-Griswold; Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford; and Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville.

Sounding the direst, Dubitsky remarked, "As a citizen of Connecticut, I'm downright scared to death. I can't sugarcoat it. The legislature has essentially declared war on small businesses in our state."

He also pushed back on the argument that legislators' hands are tied by fixed costs, because it's the legislature that fixes them. He pointed to legislative approval of 11 percent raises for union lawyers who work for the attorney general.

Dubitsky and the other Republicans expressed their disappointment in the passage of a minimum wage increase and a paid family and medical leave program. They spoke out on these issues all session and explained their opposition to The Day last week.

With the PFML plan, France voiced concern with the application to companies with only one employee, and the potential liability for unemployment consequences of hired replacements for those on leave. Even if a company has only one employee, the employee still would get 0.5 percent of his or her weekly paycheck deducted for the fund. France said he is concerned that if a company hires a replacement worker who isn’t through a temporary staffing agency, the company could be liable for unemployment benefits for that person.

Ryan defended these two issues by saying the minimum wage phase-in was extended from three to four and a half years to help businesses adapt, and said the average time taken for leave is seven weeks, not the maximum 12 allowed under the plan.

Lanoue said the "best minimum wage is dictated by the private sector" because when more businesses exist, they compete for the best workers and wages go up.

Cheeseman pointed to Maryland having minimum wage levels for companies with fewer than 15 employees and companies with more, and Oregon having levels for major metro, suburban and rural.

She did express support for the successful, bipartisan work to ease restrictions on breweries and distilleries, enable offshore wind procurement and keep Millstone open. Formica and Lanoue both were pleased to see passage of Gov. Lamont's initiative promoting 5G wireless technology.

Like Cheeseman, McCarty expressed concern about the minimum wage impact on nonprofits and home care workers. McCarty said the Medicare reimbursement rate for the home care industry is only 67 percent — not high enough to absorb minimum wage increases for home care workers.

But she said the work on the Education Committee, of which she is a ranking member, was "excellent," citing the ultimate passage of bills addressing minority teacher recruitment and creating a statewide computer science curriculum.

A bill both Formica and Osten commended was one authorizing a pilot program for hemp production. Osten noted that 52,000 products are made out of hemp, and that it's used in CBD oil, rope, construction materials, automobiles and clothing. A farm in Ledyard was awarded the first license to begin growing hemp.

Osten also noted the budget eliminates 1,000 positions in state government, the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board is getting an additional $1 million, and Norwich, Ledyard and Montville are getting additional money from the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund.

She said she feels it's easy for Republicans to stand up when they're the minority party and don't have to put out a budget.

Ryan commended the legislature for "protecting taxpayers in the future" by bringing the rainy day fund over $2 billion, and for removing Lamont's proposal for an asset test for the Medicare Savings Program.

Referencing a comment from Ryan that health insurance is now going to cover hearing aids, Gary McKeon of Joshua's Limousine Service said, "I'm glad to see hearing aids are done, because Hartford is so tone deaf right now."

He has 68 employees and said if 10 people take leave, he'd have to close his doors. McKeon said it will cost him $104,000 more in 2020 to pay his employees the increased minimum wage but said they average $23.50 an hour after gratuities.

Formica said the legislators will meet in a special session to deal with the hospital tax and with tolls, which were discussed during the question-and-answer portion of Tuesday's event.

"If you vote for the tolls — I don't care what party you are, I don't care what color you are, I don't care what age you are — we, the people, will vote you out," local photographer Pietro Camardella said.

Chris Jewell, co-owner of the Bozrah manufacturer Collins & Jewell, asked if the state could require infrastructure projects to be completed by Connecticut companies. Osten replied that the legislature continues to look to see if there is a way around federal requirements that prevent this.

e.moser@theday.com

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