Candidates for East Lyme, Salem House seat differ on tolls and tax proposals

Democrat Hugh McKenney and incumbent Republican state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, seen in this composite image, are vying for the 37th District House seat.
Democrat Hugh McKenney and incumbent Republican state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, seen in this composite image, are vying for the 37th District House seat.

Voters in East Lyme and Salem's 37th House District have a distinct choice when they go to the polls next month to select a state representative.

The incumbent, Republican Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme, is focused on improving the state's business climate and looking to tax reform rather than relying on new revenue from tolls or the legalization of marijuana. She said she prefers to see money allocated for road improvements than to further subsidize the state's rail system.

Challenger Hugh McKenney, a Democrat from Salem, said he supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use — provided there are ways to keep it out of the hands of children — and installing tolls for tractor-trailers at the entrances to major highways, including interstates 95, 91, 395 and 84. McKenney also is in favor of legalizing sports betting. He agrees that roads need attention but said he supports improving the rail system.

Cheeseman, 63, is executive director of the Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut.

"If you have a vibrant economy, businesses (in order) to compete will have to pay higher wages and offer family leave," Cheeseman said during an interview at The Day in late September.

Cheeseman said the state can't continue to hemorrhage people and jobs. She said bills that were presented in the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage to $15 and make Family and Medical Leave Insurance available to employees would have put employees and employers on the hook after state funding would run out in a couple of years.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," she said.

McKenney, 56, is a recently retired nuclear engineer who worked at the Dominion Millstone Nuclear Power Station for 20 years. He's served on his town's Planning and Zoning Commission for more than 10 years. He said he doesn't want to raise the state's income tax and is leery of increasing property taxes. He's interested in a plan proposed by the Commission on Economic Stability and Sustainability that would authorize regional councils of government to implement a program where municipalities could create local sales taxes of up to half of one percent.

"The lack of a constant revenue stream has been absolute murder on communities," McKenney said.

Cheeseman said during her first term she had a chance to "see how the sausage is made" in Hartford. She was elected in 2016 to fill the seat of 12-year-incumbent Ed Jutila, a Democrat. She served on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding; Energy and Technology; and Higher Education and Employment Advancement committees.

Cheeseman said she worked in the energy committee and on the House floor to ensure that legislators allow the Dominion Millstone Nuclear Power Plant, one of the region's top employers and supplier of about 50 percent of the state's electricity, to compete in a zero-carbon energy auction in the coming years.

She said she was proud to have introduced a bill, which was signed into law, that sets up a website providing "one-stop shopping" for students and their parents as they consider attending a state college or university. Modeled after a program in Texas and currently in the implementation stage in Connecticut, the site will enable students and their parents to look at schools, compare their costs, programs and financial aid offerings and learn what they could expect to earn after graduation.

She said she is working with the Eastern Workforce Investment Board to create a workforce pipeline of well-trained employees.

Cheeseman will be celebrated at a Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence breakfast next month for work she did on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. She was nominated by Safe Futures, the New London-based agency that provides support to domestic violence survivors in southeastern Connecticut. She supported a law that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2019, that authorizes police to arrest only the primary aggressor in a domestic violence incident involving intimate partners. 

Cheeseman said that during the past budget season she worked to restore Medicaid funding and rental rebates to elderly residents after spending time with residents of Niantic's AHEPA housing. She said she supports making schools safer and that East Lyme would be applying for a share of the $10 million approved by the State Bonding Commission for hardening schools against violent intruders by installing security cameras and metal detectors. More crucial, though, is to improve the response to those with mental health issues, since a classmate is more likely to take his own life, Cheeseman said.

McKenney, who considers Cheeseman to be "on the far right," said it would be important for legislators to engage in a collaborative effect to create new revenue streams and reduce the state budget. He suggested the state might look at adding another tier to its pension system so that new employees would not increase the state's unfunded pension burden.

He said there are efficiencies that can be gained in state government, but that in general he does not endorse subcontracting services out to the private sector. He said he supports gradual implementation of the $15 an hour minimum wage.

"No one working 40 hours a week should have to live in poverty," McKenney said. "That's just wrong. A livable wage of $15 an hour is something we absolutely have to strive for."

McKenney said family leave legislation could be implemented under a collaborative effort between the employer and the state. "I can tell you there are times in peoples' lives where you absolutely have to be there for your family — for a spouse who's sick, children who are critically ill, senior parents."

He said the state needs to come up with a way to stop large out-of-state manufacturers and retailers from employing people on a part-time basis to avoid paying them benefits.

k.florin@theday.com

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