Although they differ in their approaches to the issues, Republican Toni Boucher and her Democratic opponent, Ceci Maher, mostly see eye-to-eye when it comes to topics such as women’s reproductive rights, early voting, and rising energy costs – but their views diverge more significantly when it comes to affordable housing and how to balance spending with revenue, as revealed during the League of Women Voters New Canaan Candidate Debate held Oct. 20 at Town Hall.
The debate featured a total of 10 candidates participating in three races in the state House of Representative and two races in the State Senate – including the race between Boucher and Maher for the 26th State Senate District, which includes Darien, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Stamford, Weston, Westport, and Wilton. The event was broadcast only – no audience members were allowed.
In her opening remarks, Boucher explained that she was first elected to represent the 26th Senatorial District in 2008, after having served as the State Representative from the 143rd Assembly District for 12 years. (Boucher was defeated in 2018 by Democrat Will Haskell, who is not seeking re-election.) She has served as deputy leader in the State Senate and assistant minority leader in the State House. She has also previously served as a board of education chair, on the state board of education, and as a selectman.
“I’ve held executive positions with large corporations and funded small businesses in Wilton and Norwalk, and also I’ve also been the director of a leading institutional investment company, where I co-authored a white paper on ethics in nonprofits,” Boucher said. “I have a UCONN MBA. I’ve held series 7, 63, and 31 investment licenses. This private business background has given me a real understanding of what it takes to start a business and create jobs. I also know how painful it is to keep a business running and keep it afloat as the state keeps punishing businesses with high payroll taxes, high utility costs, and burdensome new mandates.”
Maher previously had a successful career in business, running a multi million dollar department, before turning her attention to her three children and volunteering in the local schools and community. She previously worked for nonprofit Horizons for five years and as executive director at Person-to-Person for 14 years. She also served as interim executive director of Sandy Hook Promise.
Maher said in her view, the state is headed in the right direction, under the leadership of Gov. Ned Lamont.
“We’ve got the state’s finances back on track, advanced mental health needs, passed strong gun violence prevention laws, and begun critical investments in our infrastructure,” Maher said. “This progress didn’t happen overnight. It happened thanks to bold focused leaders committed to moving our state forward.”
“So how do we build on the forward momentum? Tonight you’ll hear two very different paths, that lead in different directions,” she said.
However, on the topic of women’s reproductive rights, the two candidates appeared to be mostly on the same page.
“I very much support our Reproductive Freedom Defense Act and our defense of reproductive freedom,” Maher said. “Ensuring that a woman has a choice – and to not have laws imposed on her – is important. The only thing that I would want to do … is make certain that we protect a woman’s right [should it] become a national ban. I will fight to keep that from happening in Connecticut.”
Boucher said she, too, has “supported a woman’s right to choose throughout my time in the House and the Senate, with my voice with my vote, and with many, many debates.”
“I have been on the record on this,” Boucher said. “In fact, I supported the morning after pill in the Senate during that time. It is codified in state law and will continue [to be]. There are many difficult issues around this, no question, but Connecticut is solid. It has bipartisan support. Additionally, I would support an amendment to the [state] constitution to that effect – so there is no further discussion about this going forward. Anyone who says I wouldn’t change it, is just laying partisan politics on this issue.”
Maher, however, said Boucher has not always protected women’s rights.
“In particular, when she had the opportunity to vote for the Affirmative Consent Law [which pertains to sexual assault], she did not vote for that – she voted for the amendment, but she took apart the Affirmative Consent Law,” Maher said.
Boucher did not respond directly to Maher’s comment regarding support for the Affirmative Consent law, but added, “I think there are many that speak about this issue [of women’s reproductive rights] – but I have had to be there. I have had to do the work, I have had to vote, and I have had to debate. This issue is very personal – including for myself and my own family. The decision about a woman’s body must be between a doctor and a woman and no one else.”
Both candidates expressed support for having early voting in Connecticut – however, they have different approaches to the issue, with Boucher showing preference for modifying the state’s existing absentee ballot voting system and Maher expressing preference for a new system.
“I don’t see a problem with us enacting early voting – there are many other states that have it as well,” Boucher said. “But my view would be that we should have no-excuse absentee ballot voting that allows anyone to vote using a system we already have in place.”
“That would be more seamless, less problematic and certainly less expensive because the system is already in place,” Boucher said. “So, people could get their ballots earlier and send them in – and they wouldn’t need to come in-person. The high cost of creating another system – there are a lot of questions about how that would work – would have to be considered, as well.”
Maher said she thinks early voting “is a tremendous idea” that needs to be implemented.
“We had a [state] referendum [on early voting] years ago – it didn’t pass because people didn’t understand it,” Maher said. “So, there’s a lot of training and education out there right now. Connecticut is one of only four states that doesn’t have any form of early voting – because it is inside of our constitution – which is why we had the referendum.”
“In terms of the impact [of installing a new system for early voting] on registrars, I know that is being considered – and there will have to be funding that goes along with it,” Maher added. “But early voting for people who cannot get to the polls – for a mom whose child wakes up sick and she has no one to watch the child – for someone who is working shifts that are not conducive to the polls times – for someone who is taking care of a sick or elderly person – these are all incredibly important and we need to provide voter access for everyone. Absentee ballots have been been tremendous during the pandemic – but a huge number of people feel want to vote in person because they feel as though that is their right.”
And both candidates agree that something needs to be done about then state’s rising energy costs – which are among the highest in the nation.
“Energy is a very important topic, not just for us personally in our homes, as we are seeing our heating bills go through the roof, it’s also one of the main things businesses are having to confront,” Boucher said. “Not only do they have to face high taxes, high payroll taxes and mountains of mandates – energy costs is one of the big factors in order to stay in business.”
Boucher said one way the state can lower energy bills for residents and business owners is to un-bundle the many fees that are included in with energy bills.
“Some of [those fees] are very good – they include hardship programs, energy efficiency programs, and certain environmental goals, in which the utilities are required to enter into their contracts,” Boucher said. “However, these fees should be un-bundled and put where they belong, in the Department of Environmental Protection, not in the energy sector. That’s why the DEEP should be changed – PURA should be a separate entity – it is energy and has a different mission and focus – and the DEP should concentrate on environmental goals, which are incredibly important as well.”
“We also need to upgrade our [electric] grid to enhance reliability,” Boucher added. “This year the Democratic-controlled legislature tried to usurp some control over this – and we want to make sure we bring it back and concentrate on other sources of energy. Because as we are promoting alternative power – including solar energy – 40% of our power still comes from our one nuclear plant.”
Maher agreed that the state needs to do more to reduce energy costs – but at the same time advocated for adoption of renewable energy sources including solar and wind.
“The energy costs are really high,” Maher said. “I’m seeing it in my own home – and its not something I am looking forward to this winter.”
“One of the things we need to be doing is looking at renewables – and making sure it’s easier for people to put solar power up – and that we create more wind farms,” she said. “We need to look to include green energy in our grid. That includes looking at net metering. There’s a lot to look at, in terms of energy – and we will do that in the legislature when I am there.”
On the topic of Connecticut’s controversial 8-30g affordable housing statute, Boucher said, “Although admirable for its goals, 8-30g has not turned out the way people expected it to be. Unfortunately, too many developers have used this to bring unaffordable housing – extensive housing – to communities that are trying to make the decisions locally – which can threaten the entire quality of life in the community and put stresses on the infrastructure, for sure.”
“Democrats were able to get these laws through committee but pause their efforts when it is an election year,” Boucher said “There is deep concern that these past efforts will pick up again. It can be very difficult for local communities to absorb the school children from these high density housing complexes and the traffic is often intolerable.”
“There are some ways we can take care of this,” Boucher added, “by allowing the current housing that we have to qualify for affordable – and also to allow individuals to create equity in their homes. We have a lot of affordable housing stock already here – however the state doesn’t allow us to count it. I think we need to reform that law [8-30g] and make it usable.”
Maher did not indicate directly whether she supports 8-30g but did say that more affordable housing is needed in the area.
“[If] we want to grow our economy, we need to have housing,” Maher said. “In order to bring businesses into the state – we need to increase our housing stock. Right now, ASML in Wilton is putting in $200 million-worth of investment, they are going to add 1,000 workers and we are going to need housing for those workers. We need to look at affordable housing – and we can’t just throw 8-30g out, because it has 30 years of zoning decisions based on it. So we do need to amend it.”
On the topic of state revenues and how to grow them, Maher said in her view, attracting more businesses to the state is the main path to increasing revenue streams.
“I think we do need to grow businesses,” Maher said. “We see that there has been growth in small business development – plus, we are seeing growth in fintech services in Stamford. In fact, UCONN Stamford just started offering its very first fintech degree to support the area.”
“Growing business and growing the ways that we generate revenue is incredibly important,” Maher continued. “Governor Lamont put in place Advance CT, which is the first office that looks outside of the state to bring businesses into Connecticut. And that has been extremely successful.”
“In terms of how we would provide services, and how we would change that, is a very big question, because it is an enormous budget, and we have got to really look at where we can save money,” she added.
Boucher agreed that attracting business is key to increasing revenues – but to that end, that the state needs to do much more to make itself attractive to outside businesses that may wish to relocate here.
“I would ask how we can reduce the cost of having a business in Connecticut,” Boucher said. “When we have a minus 4.7 percent [state] GDP – the second worst in the country – and the lowest personal income growth – the worst in the country – we need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we taxing too much?’” she said. “The good news is that in 2017, when [Republicans and Democrats] were tied in the Senate, we produced a bipartisan budget that produced a spending and bonding volatility cap – and these spending controls have produced surpluses today. That common sense budget also maxed-out our rainy day fund and changed the way Connecticut pays down its highest-in-the-nation unfunded debt.”
“Yet, more and more and higher taxes and anti-business policies are being pushed,” Boucher continued. “We already have 25 percent higher payroll cost compared to other states. Many of our restaurants haven’t survived and yet they add another 1 percent on top of the 6.35 percent sales tax charged to restaurants and also on prepared foods. And just recently, a 10 percent surcharge on corporate profits, digital advertising, and a statewide commercial-residential property tax was being proposed in the last session.”
“The bottom line is we need to do something to provide relief – and part of that will be to cut the income tax from 5 percent to 4 percent for families that are making less than $175,000 a year and repeal the highway tax – [because] that diesel fuel is only increasing the cost of food. We also need to reduce the sales tax and eliminate that 1 percent tax on restaurants.”
The debate was moderated by students from New Canaan High School.
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