Democratic state reps hear from Groton, New London constituents

Groton — Local state representatives shared their thoughts on tolls, the minimum wage increase and more at an end-of-session forum on Wednesday evening at the Groton Senior Center.

The event featured Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton; Christine Conley, D-Groton; Anthony Nolan, D-New London, and Kate Rotella, D-Stonington. With only those from the majority party present, the event took a much more positive tone than a predominantly Republican legislative breakfast in Norwich two weeks ago.

The elected officials spent most of the 90 minutes taking questions from some of the 50-plus people gathered; a few of the most passionate were about tolls.

One person recalled that Conley told him while campaigning she would support tolls only on trucks, not cars, and asked if she will keep her word. While she has voted toll bills out of committee, Conley said she has not found a bill that she ultimately would support on the House floor.

Conley added that she has committed to read any toll bill and indicated her vote would depend on what more people in her district say she should do. Some in the room murmured their opposition to tolls.

De la Cruz was more unequivocal, saying he is “hugely in favor of tolls” and that he is “such a toll guy” because pension costs are eating up about 30 percent of the budget, and the state needs to address its infrastructure.

Rotella said that if the state were to borrow money to pay for roads and bridges, it would have to make cuts elsewhere.

“I don’t like any of these plans, but I still don’t have a better answer as to how to pay for these projects,” Conley said.

Asked how people can trust that toll money would go only toward transportation spending, Rotella cited the transportation lockbox that passed as a constitutional amendment in November. De la Cruz stressed that the lockbox is not just self-imposed; the state will lose federal funding if it tries to divert transportation funding elsewhere.

Each legislator addressed some of the issues they spent the most time working on this session. Conley cited her efforts to codify health care coverage for pre-existing conditions into state law regardless of what happens at the federal level. This was one of the top priorities on which she campaigned last year, and the bill passed both houses unanimously.

Conley noted she also did a lot of work on plastic bags, which will incur a 10-cent fee the next two years and be banned starting in 2021.

Rotella pointed to her work with the Speaker’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tourism to get the welcome centers on Interstate 95 open again, and reform to the Social Security and pension income tax. Nolan spoke to the successful efforts to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and help first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder.

De la Cruz was most pleased with the legislature increasing the minimum wage, which will go up $1 a year until hitting $15 an hour in 2023, and then be tied to the Employment Cost Index.

“The most important thing I think we did was we tied minimum wage into something that never has to be voted on again,” de la Cruz said, though Conley noted the legislature could change what particular index is used if there’s an issue.

Steve Mann, a longtime business owner in Pawcatuck, said there will be “no incentive for people to stay in business” if tolls are implemented in addition to the minimum wage hike. He urged the legislators to “take a real close look at what you’re doing, and see if it’s going to work down the road,” when it comes to the minimum wage.

Mystic resident Kathy Neugent asked about what happened with sports betting and recreational marijuana legalization; Conley said sports betting may come back but there aren’t the votes to legalize marijuana.

Nick Kepple asked how the four representatives could “help adjust the dialogue to a more positive view of Connecticut,” saying he hates to see everyone being a Debbie Downer about the state’s future.

While a budget forum at the same location a year and a half ago featured Conley, de la Cruz and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, for this one Somers told The Day she “was not invited to attend, which is unfortunate.”

She said having bipartisan representation at a forum is a more accurate reflection of what happens during the session, but regardless, she will be having coffee hours and meetings throughout her district over the summer.

Conley said the lack of invitation wasn’t meant to be a slight, but the forum was organized as a House event.

e.moser@theday.com

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