Stefanowski takes fight to Lamont in Garde debate
New London — An aggressive Bob Stefanowski, the Republican candidate for governor, painted Democrat Ned Lamont as a "clone" of Connecticut's outgoing governor Wednesday night, telling a debate audience at the Garde Arts Center that Lamont would surely raise taxes if elected.
"Dan Malloy has ruined this state and if he (Lamont) gets in, it's going to be more of the same," Stefanowski said. "He's going to raise taxes, he's going to put in tolls."
Lamont, who took on Malloy eight years ago in a gubernatorial primary Malloy won, challenged Stefanowski to explain how he would offset the revenue generated by the state's income tax, whose phasing out over an eight-year period is the cornerstone of Stefanowski's campaign.
Lamont, for his part, vowed to make "structural changes" in the state's tax structure, including overhauling the property tax system.
Connecticut's financial straits dominated the hourlong debate, the first face-to-face meeting between the candidates since they secured their nominations in party primaries last month. Sponsored by The Day and WTNH Channel 8 in New Haven, the exchange featured Stefanowski declaring himself "an agent for change" prior to a two-minute break in the action.
Ann Nyberg, the Channel 8 anchor, moderated the debate. Paul Choiniere, The Day's editorial page editor; Izaskun Larraneta, The Day's deputy managing editor; and Mark Davis, Channel 8's chief political correspondent, posed the questions.
Despite Nyberg's pre-debate call for decorum, the Garde crowd erupted in occasional applause.
After saying Lamont's property-tax reform would provide taxpayers with an extra $100 a month, Stefanowski sought to drive home just how bad things are.
"I'm going to call a fiscal state of emergency my first week in office," he said.
Stefanowski, a former businessman with no political experience, vowed to "cut spending, cut income taxes" and yet grow tax revenues, adding, "I'll do the exact opposite of what Malloy's done."
Asked if they would honor the contract Malloy negotiated with unions representing state workers, both candidates said that as governor they would sit down at the negotiating table to address pension-fund obligations that are strapping the state.
Lamont said revenue generated by the state lottery should be directed to the teachers' pension fund.
While Stefanowski criticized Lamont for proposing "superficial solutions to a $100 billion problem," Lamont scored what he characterized as Stefanowski's continued failure to explain how he'd pay for his "pie-in-the-sky" elimination of the income tax, which generates more than half of the state's revenue.
"Still no math and no plan," Lamont's campaign said in a post-debate release. "Here's what it means ... this is what he's not telling us. We'll see property taxes soar. We'll see massive cuts to education, (health care) and transportation."
Lamont said he supports the imposition of highway tolls on tractor-trailers entering the state and a cut in the gasoline tax. He advocated a "lock box" for funds dedicated to highway improvements.
"You got to love this lock box idea," said Stefanowski, an opponent of tolls, which he called "just another tax."
Stefanowski said he could offset the tax cuts he proposes by trimming waste from the annual state budget, claiming he easily could get 5 percent — roughly $1 billion — out of it.
"I still haven't heard how you pay for any of his positions," Lamont said.
In regard to the opioid crisis, Lamont advocated centralizing the response of state and local agencies.
Stefanowski panned that approach. “More government is not the answer. We don’t need a drug czar,” he said.
While Lamont said he would support legalizing recreational use of marijuana, as neighboring states have done, Stefanowski indicated he wasn’t sold on the idea.
“I’d still like to know about impairment,” Stefanowski said, referring to marijuana’s effects.
Lamont, seemingly with little success, sought to align Stefanowski with the administration of President Donald Trump, saying at one point that there was “no question” they were close. Stefanowski barely responded.
In his closing statement, Lamont, trying to “change the tone of the debate,” invoked 9/11, which was memorialized the day before the debate.
“I remember thinking of that day, when we all stood together,“ he said, suggesting the state needs a governor who can bring people together.
Stefanowksi expressed a similar sentiment.
“I did it in the business world,” he said. “... Does anyone believe taxes won’t go up in a Lamont administration?”