EXCLUSIVE 2-Parter Q&A with Wilton Legislators: State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143)

In today’s special, exclusive 2-part Q&A, GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with two of Wilton’s legislators–State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-143) and State Senator Will Haskell (D-26), to get their assessment of how the 2019 CT Legislative Session  went.

So much happened this session–a freshman governor began his term, a newer and stronger Progressive caucus hit town, a surprise bomb in the form of school regionalization was dropped on everyone, and Lavielle took a lead role in fighting against regionalization. We get Lavielle’s take on the session, here, and Haskell’s interview runs today as well, elsewhere on the site.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length only.)


GOOD Morning Wilton:  This year’s legislative session ended with a ratified budget before the deadline–unlike two years ago when the Assembly and governor deadlocked. You’d think that meant it was a smoother session, but it still seems like it was, for lack of a better word, a wackadoodle year. School regionalization and resulting turmoil surprised everyone right off the bat; inter-party fighting; intra-party fighting and the Progressive caucus was a new thing to reckon with.

‘Whackadoodle’ is my word, but from your perspective…what’s your word to characterize the session?

Gail Lavielle:  Surprise! Capricious in a way. It was really the year of, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.

GMW:  From top down?

Lavielle:  Yes, very much.

GMW:  Is that characteristic of a first-year governor?

Lavielle:  No. Well, I’ve only served under two governors. It wasn’t characteristic of the other one at all. Believe me, I disagreed with most of what he did, but at least he knew what it was. He said, ‘This is my strategy, this is what I want.’He could do that because he knew how the system worked and whom he had to convince.

The current governor doesn’t really know how the process works. With the exception of a couple people, he hasn’t really surrounded himself with people who know how it works. He just puts things out there like trial balloons and nobody knows which way is up.

Adding to that, [the Democrats] have a majority–it’s not as bad as it was when I got there, but it’s a majority, whereas last time, it was barely a majority. Somebody was absent, and it was no longer a majority.

Now they’re majority, but they have such a deep schism within their ranks that they can’t get enough votes for anything.

GMW:  Which is interesting–it makes things less predictable.

Lavielle:  Very much less predictable. Ask anyone one day whether they were from the Progressive Caucus, or from the administration, or the Democrats, and you’d hear one thing and then the next day you’d hear something from somebody else.

GMW:  Does that leave opportunity for–glass half full–different kinds of coalition building or partnerships?

Lavielle:  On some things, we’ve always had that. We’ve had that on [the] Education [Committee] a lot. Boy, did we ever have it big time here [fighting school regionalization]–that was really the coalition to end all coalitions.

But in the legislature, among legislators, we’ve had that. We’ve had some on various municipal issues. Certainly, energy’s a big one, even some of the environmental votes; public health, stuff like that. We had the bill on raising the age for cigarettes, totally bipartisan. There’ve always been those opportunities.

With budget stuff, it’s different because it’s a question of, ‘Look folks, you’ve had your tax increases, big ones every year for many, many years now and you haven’t saved a dime. So really we think it’s time.’

GMW:  Were there other vote outcomes you were surprised about, given that there was a large Democratic majority? I mean, legalizing marijuana didn’t happen.

Lavielle:  They didn’t have the votes.

GMW:  Which was surprising.

Lavielle:  To me too.

GMW:  There were other surprising things …

Lavielle:  One is tolls. That’s still not resolved.

It was odd. You know, [Lamont] ran the governor’s race saying he’d only toll trucks, then two weeks into his administration, he says, ‘We better toll everybody.’ People were like, ‘What?’Whether you’re for tolls or not, it was very confusing. Then, problems with the Senate, the House, finally they agreed there’d be two or three bills–the transportation committee majority, one House, one Senate, even though it’s the same committee.

Then the governor’s bill and they all came up for vote, and they still didn’t have a plan. They didn’t say what they were going to do. It takes, they say, 5-7 years to install these things and get them to work. So there’s no budget impact for the moment.

But we left it with one bill having made it out of the transportation committee. No plan, no real who makes the decisions, very strange. And it sat there.

‘We’re gonna call it next week.’ ‘No we’re not.’ ‘We’re going to call it tomorrow.’ ‘No, tomorrow we’re going to do paid family week.’ It went on and on like that. Meanwhile, the governor is getting more and more antsy. I think he does want good things to happen, but he just doesn’t know how.

It kept going on like that. Obviously, they didn’t have the votes and that’s when they need us. It is respectable when you have a four-vote majority and you’re like, ‘We don’t know if we have the votes,’ there may be one or two people you can convince. So, of course you need the other, that’s normal.

But when you’re down to us [Republicans] 60 versus [Democrats] 91 and to not be able to get all the votes from your own caucus, something is wrong. They don’t have it in the Senate either. So, when the session ended, he said, ‘We’re going to have a special session.’

Then he said something about, ‘We’re going to find a way to get the Republicans.’[Republican House Minority Leader] Themis [Klarides]wrote a letter and had everyone from caucus sign it, and said, ‘No. Do you not understand? No.’

So, they had a meeting yesterday with the governor and [Democratic Senate Leaders] Sen. Martin Looney and Sen. Bob Duff, [Democrats] Joe Aresimowicz and Matt Ritter from the House and Themis and [Republican Sen. Minority Leader] Len [Fasano]. Then they had a press conference, and [Gov.] Ned [Lamont] says, ‘We had some very frank discussions.’ He ultimately said, ‘No, we don’t have a deal.’  And he looked so desperate, he looked so pitiful. I really felt sorry for him.

It’s all kind of pie in the sky. ‘Will you do it if I give you this?’ What’s “it?” You still haven’t told us what “it” is. Why can’t somebody come in and say, ‘For this price, for this much drivers to pay, and this many gantries, and for this much traffic, including if it’s a disincentive to traffic, this is exactly how much money we would get. And this is our method.’

GMW:  Why is transportation the worst problem we have? Transportation impacts economic development and new businesses coming in. It impacts people moving in and out of the state, daily life, and yet the transportation fund is the biggest target for suctioning and siphoning it off?

Lavielle:  Going on that, ‘We need money, we need money fast, we’ve got to get money faster.’ I understand we need to invest, I get it, but give me some statistics I can believe. Don’t tell me we need more money and then take all the money away. I would never be able to sell that to a constituent:  ‘You’ve got to pay to drive here now because, you know, we need money.’ No.

GMW:  Don’t polls and surveys show that people are willing to accept something when it comes to tolls.

Lavielle:  Well, yes, I think it’s much more mitigated than it used to be. It used to be that everybody hated them. There are people who support them now and they do work in other places. [But] I’m not going to go out and vote for them tomorrow because I don’t see anything I can possibly vote for.

I want to see the gas tax revenues start to disappear. And when I see that, or when I see a reasonable projection, because you don’t want to do it when it happens, but I want someone to explain to me when they are expecting this to happen and through what dynamic.

I find a lot of the stuff that’s done in state government to be for people who spend a lot of time, for political reasons, saying I respect science. They are remarkably unscientific about how they go about these things.

The other example was the minimum wage. How did they come to $15? Maybe the minimum wage did need to go up a little bit, or maybe it didn’t go up enough; who knows? But that’s just it, who knows? Because no one did any research.

GMW:  Isn’t $15 an hour the prevailing number that a lot of states have gotten to? Do you think that’s part of it?

Lavielle:  $15… I asked about it twice–in appropriations and on the floor, and the answer I was given was, “Well, you know, it was a national movement.” Yes, that’s right. It was the SCIU, which is the biggest union conglomerate in the country. The SCIU’s campaign, “Fight for $15, and a union.”

And it was aimed actually at the private sector. They went out and got people from McDonald’s, for example, to campaign and lobby for a $15 minimum wage, and to act like a union when they were doing it. So when they got it, they’re like, “Wow, being in a union is great, we should start a union.”

And that’s what $15 was. There was no method, there was no, “Well, looking at Connecticut’s economy, maybe we should take it from $10 to $12.” Or, “People don’t understand Connecticut, $15 is not enough, we should take it to $17.” Just, “Hey, we’re going to $15.” Where does that make sense? But I’m not sure $15 is going to help you any more than $13 does. I don’t know.

GMW:  So the session ended with the budget passing a day or two before the deadline.

Lavielle:  Yes–with some democratic votes against, by the way.

GMW:  There was a lot of talk about the worst-case scenario, what ‘could have happened,’ but many of those things didn’t happen. The session ended without school regionalization, without the pension push down this year. Wilton still got education funding, the state car tax didn’t happen, the homestead tax didn’t happen. All the things people worried about, that were going to really drive our already-high, post-revaluation taxes even higher–didn’t happen. It seemed almost anticlimactic. What do you think about that?

Lavielle:  This new governor was an unknown, right? No one knew who he would listen to, what he would do. The 36 members of the Progressive Caucus in the House were unexpectedly loud, vocal and influential. No one knew what was going to happen. To this day, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I [only] know what’s going to happen in the session because it’s over.

But there were some very real goals out there and in situations like that, prudence and caution are called for. And what if you didn’t do it and something came your way that was just a real financial slap?

You can have all the relationships in the world and something else will come out. Sen. Bob Duff thought he was going to get a lot of stuff that he didn’t end up getting. It’s very, very unpredictable and I have more of a tendency to be careful with people’s money. I don’t believe in speculating the taxpayers’ money. That’s just how I am. I don’t speculate with my own, I’m not going to speculate with other people’s when I’m in charge of it.

Most of the towns around here did make some kind of a provision for the pension push down. And they did it really early on thinking that might happen.

GMW:  So, with everything coming out of the legislative session, turning to Wilton, how does Wilton move forward now? Especially in municipal election season, it’s not surprising partisan conversation has flared [about School Regionalization]. Now this month the Wilton Democrats caucus and Wilton Republicans hold their convention to pick their candidates. What should Wiltonians pay attention to or think about as they head for voting? What’s your take on things?

Lavielle:  Not everybody, but a lot of people in Wilton over the past session, learned a whole lot about how the state works. And how the process works. It’s just so funny to run into whoever from off the street who just got through watching Marty Looney saying something irreverent, in a hearing, and who just got yelled at by [Sen.] Doug McCrory and they actually know who Doug McCrory is.

And I know of one person who’s leaving, just–goodbye. And so I think a number of things:

One is, remember who is running the state. It’s people like the guy who yelled at you in the Education Committee. So when you vote to give that person more power, that’s what you’re doing, just remember it. It’s not just the guy you’re looking at across the table, it’s who is really driving that train. I think a lot of people realize that.

The second one is that this political back-and-forth is normal, that’s supposed to happen. We’re lucky now that we actually have people who are fairly civilized about it. It happens, but it is going to continue to be unpredictable and you can’t have people being too confident about the way they believe things are going to turn out because we really don’t know.

Next year is a state election year so there will be a lot of difficult votes that people won’t want to take. Some of the things are more radical, like regionalizing schools, or tolls, or even marijuana, that there may not–I don’t know this, I’m not trying to predict–but it might be there is not as much appetite for taking action on those things next year. But the year after, just wait, depending of course on what the numbers are and the legislators.

But [for Wilton] you want to look for people who are cautious and cognizant of the fact that the economy is still not coming back, that Wilton is in great shape financially, because there has been great prudence in the way that the finances are run.

[And] not to take the schools for granted because that can get knocked out at any time.

All of this planning, it will stand us in good stead if another recession comes, which it will, eventually. You want people who have made sure there’s enough aside and enough resources to go on. So that’s something I hope people learn–some lessons about unpredictability.

Lavielle:  This year when they had a budget to pass, I wasn’t really surprised by it because I saw through the appropriations process–nobody was cutting anything. At one point, one of the most radical [new Progressives], you wouldn’t have expected her to ask, ‘Excuse me, but are we supposed to make suggestions here for saving money too?’ The house chair said to her, ‘We’re here to advocate for the most responsible spending document possible, the most responsible spending plan.’ She didn’t answer. Of course you’re supposed to [cut]. S

She was one of those up-and-coming, really angry at Trump people–that was why she ran. And usually they don’t ask questions about saving money, they’ll ask about other issues.

So when I got up to talk about the budget on the floor, I said, ‘You know, when I used to be in business and I was going to make a presentation on a new project or a piece of new business where someone was going to make them to me, I always expected to see, “This is our goal where we’ve got some strategies for getting to and some priorities and some barriers and this is the tactics that we’re going to use together.” I don’t see any of that.’

That’s a standard management consulting presentation. I don’t see anything here. All I see is, “Forget about the long-term, we’ve just got to get to the end of this two years without being in the red. Let’s go. It doesn’t matter how we do it.”There was no strategy, there was no plan, that’s how you do a budget.

Of course, the legislature would do its own, but they would change the strategies, they would respond to the governor’s, [but] there was nothing there. I had somebody call me from the Connecticut Mirrorthe other day and say to me, ‘I just want to know if I’m crazy. I remember when Malloy came in and he had all those education reform proposals and things he wanted to do. Governor [Lamont] didn’t have any, did he?’ I said, ‘Well, I think it was school regionalization.’ I think they were really counting on it, because it was there in black and white, but there wasn’t anything else. You saw us pass minority recruitment of teachers bills, teacher classroom safety. It was nothing about improving education. The formula we did in the last budget stayed the same. Of course it was not at all. Not at all, but that was going to be his education strategy. ‘This is how we’re going to help kids in the inner cities.’I don’t think so. I’m not sure it’s about money anyway, but whatever.

There was nothing on that score.

I asked several times in appropriations. I said, ‘I know I can’t ask about revenue here and about transferring that transportation money, but what transportation spending are you planning on doing with it? Where’s the proposal?’

And there were no cuts–nothing. The budget spends 2.4% more the first year than fiscal year 2019, and 2.9% more in 2021 than in 2022. So no cuts when we’re in this terrible state and then a lot more taxes. There should be some method to it. The first thing the governor had said was, ‘Our sales taxes, exemptions and all that don’t make any sense, there’s no rhyme or reason to them.’ So, he put in a whole bunch and he was going to clear up the rhyme or reason problem.

In the end we just have a whole bunch of disparate new taxes that you won’t notice because you’ll pay one one day and then you’ll pay the other the next. You’ll do your dry cleaning and then you’ll do your interior design and then you’ll do your pass-through business, and then you’ll do vaping and digital downloads. All of a sudden you realize that you’ve paid a whole bunch of money. But it’s kind of like they’re counting on nobody noticing, because they’re so all over the map. It was basically, ‘Let’s fill up that deficit with taxes.’ There’s no overwhelming theme except, ‘Close the two year deficit and don’t worry about the future.’

It’s $1.75 billion in new taxes over the biennium, but a lot of that’s the hospital tax that they were supposed to take away and they didn’t. So I think it’s $346 million the first year and $406 [million] the second year.

One thing that does stand out, which I do find remarkable, is, how loudly can we tell businesses we don’t want them here? How loudly can we tell them to go away? And they did it. They did it, they actually did it. That was one coherent thing. It doesn’t matter about businesses. Just send them away.

[Lavielle lists the anti-business moves:]

  • Minimum wage going up to an arbitrary number over a period of four years, and maybe you can defend that, but then it’s indexed every year after that forever to go up every year. No business can cope with knowing that its employee costs will go up every year out of their control. So there is an indexing to the employee cost index, which for decades has gone up every year, but nobody talks about that. The media doesn’t talk about that. But there is a provision in the bill that says once you get to 2023 and you’re up to $15, and then it gets an increase every year.
  • Paid family leave, which everybody supports but not under the system they proposed, which is they take 0.5% out of your salary every month, it goes into the paid family leave account and that’s until your salary goes up to the social security level, which is $132,900. Then this all goes into the fund and employees start taking 12 weeks of paid family leave, which is to an extent paid for. It’s going to go insolvent very quickly. When that happens, there’s several things the Labor Commissioner could do:  raise the contribution limit, raise the social security, but what they decided the Labor Commissioner could do was reduce your benefit. So if you’ve been paying into this for three years, and finally one day you decide you want to take paid family, they’re going, sorry, there’s not enough money. So you only get to take half the time or you only get half the salary. What we did, we put out a proposal which we ran as an amendment that required Connecticut to come to an agreement with one or more insurance companies to create programs like this, which are similar to disability programs. Make sure every business makes these available and employees can choose which one to participate in and what kind of benefits they want, so that everybody has a choice and the state’s not running it, because under their thing, the state runs it and there’s $5 million in the budget for startup costs now and then there will be $20 million a year to run. That was another one hitting businesses, because you try being without three people for the 12 automatic weeks.
  • There was the pass through entity tax on LLCs, the deduction that was allowed to people to get rid of the effects of the Trump tax thing. That deduction has gone down. So there is an automatic tax increase on owners of LLC, most small businesses, and that’s about $50 million a year.
  • There was the state retirement plan. Again, if you’re a small business, you have to make it available to your employees.
  • There’s an uptick in the filing fee when you file to register your business and you have to keep doing it every couple of years,
  • The corporate surcharge on regular corporate tax, which has been meant to go away. It was supposed to sunset but beginning of every biennium they recharge the sunset so it won’t be for another two years–they did that again.

You don’t hear those things about paid family leave and minimum wage, all you hear is ‘paid family leave, it’s great, it’s great.’It’s great, people take off now to take care of the family. By the way, family is not defined, it can be somebody who’s a good friend, like family, but you don’t have to prove it and it’s taken out of your check every week and it’s obligated to where there’s nothing you can do about it. So people don’t know that, people don’t know the minimum wages index to increase forevermore. The media never covers that stuff.

I don’t mind people having political goals or whether they’re different from mine or not, it’s respectable. I mean, you have them, but when they’re expensive and they come at the price of driving the state further down the hole, maybe you could wait a couple of years. So, I do feel there was some putting political goals before practical financial necessary goals.

GMW:  Any parting thought?

Lavielle:  Can I list three things? Because they were important.

  1. There were $6-$9 million in earmarks in there for things. Those were to buy votes, but they were really conspicuous this time. Usually they’re hidden.
  2. There’s the Ray Dalio Foundation, that would give $100 million to Connecticut to help disengaged youth and improve schools. They’re going to do that and that’s fine. The deal is $20 million a year. The state matches that $20 million the first year and hopefully in the years after that they’ll see how it goes. So they form a non-stock corporation called the “Partnership for Connecticut,” and it’s got a bunch of appointees, people are on the board. So you got $20 million from Dalio, you have $20 million of taxpayer money, and they’re not subject to government disclosure rules, no FOI, none of the ethics requirements. There is language that this is not construed to be in any way a public or quasi-public agency of the state. They’re exempt from all that. That’s a problem, that’s being looked into. But that was in the budget.
  3. Another thing was the teacher’s pension refinancing, right? It was to go until, I believe somewhere in the 2030s–I think it’s 2032 or 2036–and they stretched it out to 2049, I think. They keep saying, ‘That means we saved money.’ No, you didn’t save money. in fact, depending on what you’re counting, it’s either about $17 billion more in costs or it’s $27 [billion] when you start counting the interest that the money you put in there would have earned. That’s for future generations in the 2040s. And what I found out in questioning was that that still has to be approved by the teacher’s retirement board. So we don’t even know if it’s happening yet.
  4. The final thing I want to mention is, there’s this $460 million over the two years built into the budget of state employee savings. The governor says he can get them, they have to do with some health care changes, and stretching out once again, the state employees’ retirement obligations. Those have to be collectively bargained, nobody’s agreed to it, and that’s a biggie. And the $90 million in raises for all the states employees.

GMW:  Over how many years?

Lavielle:  Over three, because it spills over a little bit into 2022. But when you add up all the things you agreed to, it’s over those years and the point there is… who do you know who gets a 3.5% guaranteed raise for one year in advance, two years in advance, three years in advance? And second, it’s fine, if somebody gets paid more and somebody gets paid less, that’s life. That’s the way, that’s fair. But if the person getting a lot more is having it paid for by the person who gets less and the person who gets less can never have that, that’s wrong, that’s not fair. And that’s what happened–these people are getting healthcare for life, very nice pensions, and guaranteed raises all the time. And they’re not making little bitty bits of money either. Why should taxpayers have to pay for them to get much better than what the taxpayers can get themselves?

GMW:  Were there any good things that came out of the budget?

Lavielle:  We’re glad there’s no school regionalization, we’re glad there’s no teacher pension push down. The virtual net metering issue in the energy bill. And there were some good environmental wins–the environmental people are very happy this time. There were quite a number of things, but on the money level it was tough, it was very tough. So I just don’t see that we’ve advanced any farther toward any solutions for Connecticut. And that’s what’s so disappointing about it.

It’s a question of our state is being run by these people who–nothing wrong with them because of it, but–they live in places that have very different interests from people who are just trying to get their kids educated as well as possible and go to work and have a good quality of life. And people who have lots of axes to grind, and they have some hostility towards our goals.