EXCLUSIVE 2-Parter Q&A with Wilton Legislators: State Sen. Will Haskell (D-26)
In today’s special, exclusive 2-part Q&A, GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with two of Wilton’s legislators–State Senator Will Haskell (D-26) and State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-143), to get their assessment of how the 2019 CT Legislative Session went.
So much happened this session–a freshman governor began his term, a surprise bomb in the form of school regionalization was dropped on everyone, a newer and stronger Progressive caucus hit town, and Haskell started as a 22-year-old newbie who’d unseated a Hartford veteran. We get Haskell’s take on the session, here, and Lavielle’s interview runs today as well, elsewhere on the site.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length only.)
GMW: 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 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. All in your very first session.
Will Haskell: I think ‘wackadoodle’ is a fair word to describe the process. People don’t understand it. When we were sworn in, I had two weeks to write and propose bills–there were a lot of all-nighters. Then you have a few months to debate these things. They go through the committee, but every bill is either alive or dead on June 5th.
Maybe because I’m new, I’m obsessed by the unfinished business. There were 5,000 bills proposed, but only a few hundred were passed by the House and Senate. So many things slipped through the cracks–not because they were bad ideas, but simply because they didn’t have enough time to make it through both.
For example, a bi-partisan bill that would have allowed Connecticut to import prescription drugs from Canada. This is a bi-partisan idea–Florida’s Republican governor and Trump loyalist Ron DeSantis came up with the idea–to import cheaper drugs so those suffering from rising healthcare costs can have relief here in Connecticut, and break through a monopoly on what’s really not a competitive market. If you need a prescription drug, it’s not a marketplace full of choices, right? It’s a health necessity and you ought to have options to lower-cost providers.
[Another] bill would’ve dramatically shifted our tax structure towards payroll taxes as opposed to income tax. That would have provided relief from Donald Trump’s $10,000 cap on state and local income taxes, something I hear a lot about. It didn’t happen in Hartford simply because of inertia.
We didn’t do enough to protect reproductive health and freedom in the wake of what’s happening in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. Connecticut ought to be stepping up, making sure that every business, every individual and every family knows Connecticut actually honors reproductive health and freedom.
All that to say, I’ve spent as much time since June 5 talking about what we accomplished as I have what we didn’t accomplish, what I want to go back to do, gun bills I proposed that didn’t get called for a vote, environmental protection bills that didn’t go far enough. My bills that would have furthered consumer protection and reduced energy costs. There’s a lot I can’t wait to get back there for.
GMW: Interesting that you point to a Republican. Partisan politics is always a part of the Hartford discussion, even when the discussion happens in Wilton. It’s already happening, especially with our upcoming municipal election. Did you experience party politics?
Haskell: This is a real problem, how Hartford’s perceived in the press, God knows on social media–everything we do up there seems partisan, when in fact probably 70% of the bills we vote on are unanimous. So much of what we do is bipartisan.
It’s a shame our reputation is soured by this avid partisanship. Yeah, we disagree. There are plenty of areas where we agree.
GMW: You hear Republican’s say, “The majority party was…,”
Haskell: The Democrats have a majority, in the House and the Senate, but also in the Committees. So sometimes Republicans were disappointed. That being said, I’ve actually got a great working relationship with a lot of my Republican colleagues. That certainly includes here in Wilton, Rep. [Gail] Lavielleand Rep. [Tom] O’Dea. We really were a team advocating for our constituents, not on a partisan basis, but convincing our colleagues that school regionalization is not the way to go. We have different styles. Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle were a little more incendiary in their comments, I tried to play a good cop, right?
I had a seat inside the Democratic caucus room. That offered an opportunity to bring Wilton’s voices into my party and successfully convince my leaders this was not the route we ought to go. Public schools are part of what makes Connecticut such a wonderful place to live. Part of the reason people choose to move to Wilton and Westport and Weston is because of our wonderful schools. We should not do anything to jeopardize that. Working together and also my having a seat at the table in that caucus room really did benefit our constituents this session by making sure not a single bill concerning school regionalization passed.
GMW: It’s still an issue within Wilton, especially when it came to how seriously Hartford’s budget moves would impact our own budget here. The conversation turned partisan with Republicans who warned that Hartford’s budget moves–especially things introduced by Democrats, like Sen. Looney’s car tax–would hit Wilton hard, and they needed to protect Wilton residents; and Democrats who said, “‘Stay calm, it’s not going to happen,” and “Don’t be Chicken Little saying, ‘The sky is falling!’”
Haskell: We ought to be less visceral in politics about just about every topic. Those who got to know me over the last session, here in Wilton talking to constituents, having community coffees and town hall meetings, or my colleagues up at Hartford, they’ll tell you that even where they disagree with me, I’m not particularly reactionary. I like to think things through.
That leads to people getting frustrated with me, right? Saying, ‘Why haven’t you spoken out emphatically and immediately against some proposal?’ Like on teacher pension cost sharing, for example. But I try to be methodical. I had a lot of meetings with Board of Finance members, with Board of Education members, with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, talking about what the impact sharing the cost of teacher pensions with the municipalities would look like.
When I came to realize and heard very compelling testimony from them, that it would increase property taxes, I worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is, a lot of people walk into that building thinking they’re an expert in something. I’m 22 years old–I obviously knew I wasn’t the expert in any topic. But those who walk into the building thinking they’re an expert on environmental policy quickly realize they may be, but they’re not an expert when it comes to Medicaid, and the authority on Medicaid is not an expert on higher education, and the authority on higher education is not an expert on modernizing our transportation.
Legislators have to deal with such a wide variety of issues. Our job is ultimately to listen–to our constituents, to our colleagues and to experts who testify. And if you listen throughout the process and hearings and debates, then you’re at least as prepared to vote on the topic as anybody else.
My promise is that, even though the session’s over, I’m going to continue listening to those I agree with, those I disagree with, and those who haven’t made up their minds yet. That’s why I’m doing town halls in every single town. It’s why I’m continuing to meet with constituents because if you can’t listen, you can’t legislate.
GMW: This was your first session as Senator. What was the best part of it? What were your personal victories and accomplishments?
Haskell: Today the governor signed Paid Family Leave into law–that’s a bill I poured my heart into. I talked a lot about it on the campaign trail, about my mom being a single working mom, having to go back to work two weeks after I was born.
Those big, historic bills where we were up until, two, three, four in the morning voting–some nights we stayed up late enough to see the front page of the newspaper print the news the next day–those were thrilling.
But the most thrilling was actually a small little bill–it was my first bill to ever make it through the legislative process and become a law. It’s a bill that incentivizes state employees to report wasteful practices. It’s not the biggest thing to come out of Hartford. It’s not the 10th biggest thing, but I really think that state employees ought to be our partners in trying to root out duplicative and wasteful spending within our bureaucracy.
Nobody knows where waste lies in our state government better than those who work inside the system. The bill I introduced says, if you find wasteful practices in excess of $10,000 and you report it to your supervisor and it results in a savings for the state, we’ll give you a cut of those savings, to 10%, to be specific. This is a real opportunity to move beyond us-versus-them rhetoric and start to save taxpayer dollars by reducing the size of state government.
It passed in the Senate and everybody said, ‘Good luck,’ in the House. We worked so hard in the House, trying to convince Democrats and Republicans to support it and then watched it go all the way to the governor’s desk for a signature. Even though it was a small bill, something I felt I had done for my constituents–that was tremendously rewarding.
GMW: Anything that you wish you could have done that you didn’t have time to, or you were disappointed how it went?
Haskell: When I got to Hartford I was told we typically do one gun violence prevention bill a year. Hartford was infused with a lot of new voices this year, and a lot of those voices were elected on a wave of concern about gun violence and a desire to stand up to the NRA and make sure every student can feel safe in the classroom.
We said one’s not going to cut it. We passed three gun bills this year–two having to do with safe storage, one having to do with ghost guns–but there were other bills I would’ve liked to pass.
Next year I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and work on ‘Presentation of a Permit Upon Request.’ If you get pulled over by a law enforcement officer, he or she can ask to see your driver’s license. But if they notice you’re carrying a weapon, they can’t ask to see the permit that allows you to do so.
What’s the point of having an open or concealed carry program if we don’t allow law enforcement officers to make sure it works? Thirty-five police chiefs testified about this bill saying, without a law allowing us to confirm somebody’s allowed to carry a weapon, we can’t tell who’s a good guy with a gun and who’s a bad guy with a gun. That’s a major piece of unfinished business we’ve got to work on in the judiciary committee–a big reason I can’t wait to go back.
GMW: Were you surprised Legalized Marijuana didn’t pass?
Haskell: I don’t mind that we’re proceeding slowly. A lot of my constituents are furious it didn’t happen. They said, ‘We have a Democratic majority. What happened?’ Well, we want to do this in a safe and responsible way and be a leader and show the country what it looks like to legalize in a way that makes sure this doesn’t fall into the hands of children. I support strict age restrictions; there should be advertising regulations in the same way we’ve done with tobacco; we should limit the THC content.
I don’t mind proceeding cautiously and feel very strongly that if we do decide to do it in the next legislative session, it should go to the public health committee and to all the relevant committees–judiciary committee, certainly the finance committee–let’s tax it heavily. Let’s make sure we’re doing this in a really responsible way.
GMW: Any predictions how discussions on tolls will go this summer?
Haskell: That’s the $900 million question. I don’t know. I’ve been working very closely with the governor trying to corral my colleagues into a vote over the summer. I don’t think we can wait.
Every time somebody asks me a transportation question, the answer’s the same. The question’s usually, ‘Why can’t we electrify this branch? Why can’t we put dual tracking? Why can’t we have WiFi on Metro-North? Why are the trains so slow? Why are the bridges…’ It all comes down to the fact that we cannot afford the improvements until we have a long term, reliable transportation funding plan.
What you hear on the other side of the aisle– this is one of those areas where we do disagree–is a lot of platitudes about this plan called ‘Prioritize Progress.’ Unfortunately that plan is just a continuation of the very same practice that Connecticut’s done for decades–taking out debt on the state’s credit card, kicking the can down the road, passing the bill to the next generation. It’s not just that your kids and your grandkids are going to have to pay for every dollar that you spend–they’re going to have to pay for every dollar you spend plus the interest that it accumulates.
What we ought to be doing is asking the out-of-state drivers, the trucking companies and yes, the Connecticut drivers to pay their fair share. That’s sustainable and brings us in line with every other state on the east coast.
I think about it every time I visit my girlfriend in Boston, I pay so much on the Mass Pike and yet I’m driving with the very same people through Connecticut and they don’t have to contribute to Connecticut roads. People think we’re getting a discount or something in Connecticut because we don’t have tolls. It’s just the opposite. You’re going to be asked to pay for the infrastructure improvements in your taxes. You bear the sole brunt here in addition to paying it into another state, it’s just not fair.
We’re a geographic hotspot–you can’t avoid Connecticut between New York and Boston. Why are we giving so many people a free ride?
GMW: Talking about kicking the can down the road, I know sometimes the opposition, the Republicans say the same thing about Democrats, in particular about teacher pension funding. They say that was talk really was just refinancing and kicking it down the road to the next generation. What do you have to that?
Haskell: The biggest reason we had to re-amortize the teacher pension that is for years, Connecticut’s had an 8% expected rate of return. That’s unfortunately not realistic. Our pension fund typically brings in closer to 6%, so if we bring down the expected rate of return to a far more realistic and less aspirational number, you’re either going to face a sharp increase in contribution requirements or you’re going to have to extend it like you would a mortgage.
It’s not my favorite thing that we did, but it’s one of those things that, again, is about being transparent and not aspirational. It’s about being forward thinking and not focused on the political expediency of your current voters. But I’m trying to really think about tomorrow’s tax payers.
GMW: I guess when the state is so far in the hole, you have to have some sort of solution that may not necessarily make everyone happy?
Haskell: I’ll tell you what I’m really proud of though. This most recent budget paid $1.8 billion towards pension payments–of course, $1.5 billion of that had to go towards yesterday’s debts because for years legislators for generations did not contribute a single cent to our pension fund. But we’re in a new regime in Connecticut. We are a forward thinking legislature finally and we paid down the fully required contribution. We fully paid down the required contribution for today’s employees and future retirees. That means that our kids and grandkids are not going to inherit the debts that unfortunately we’re reckoning with here in Connecticut.
GMW: Talk about the minimum wage.
Haskell: I was a part of a group of legislators in my caucus who held it up for some time, because we wanted to do it in a way that was fair and provided some predictability to businesses. Some members in my caucus, who I have a lot of respect for and are wonderful people, wanted to raise the minimum wage overnight. Some people on the other side of the aisle, who I have a lot of respect for, didn’t want to raise the minimum wage at all. I find myself somewhere in between.
Fairfield County is facing crippling inequality that holds everybody back. It’s not good for our economy that you can cross a $100,000 difference in median income by driving 10 minutes on the Merritt or on 95.
We’ve got to do something to help working families afford to put food on the table and gas in their car. It’s time for a minimum wage increase. That being said, rather than do so immediately, we stretched it out over four years, giving businesses that predictability they need. Making sure that increases were no more than a dollar a year, so they had time to plan for this. There’s this perception that minimum wage workers in Connecticut are high school students working summer jobs. The reality is actually just the opposite–the majority are women, more than a third of them have children. These are working families, and by the way, it doesn’t even apply to seasonal employees. If you have a summer job you’re not paid the minimum wage.
GMW: Some people aren’t happy that it indexes yearly after that…
Haskell: We really ought to be removing this conversation from politics. Whether you’re on the left or right, you probably don’t think that a bunch of legislators and lobbyists should decide what the minimum wage is. It should be done by a team of economists who decide what it is. What does it take to survive in Connecticut? I you’re working 40 hours a week, how can we make sure you’re able to get by in this state? That’s why it’s going to be indexed to the Consumer Price Index going forward.
You know, something I didn’t anticipate, that when you’re running for office, everything seems like an absolute right and absolute wrong. You’re talk about your ideas being absolutely right and your opponent’s being absolutely wrong.
The reality is every single day in Hartford there’s a decision that ties your stomach and it’s really quite difficult. The days of absolute rights and absolute wrongs are few and far between, and far more often you’re asked to make a decision where you really do see both sides of the issue.
That became most apparent to me on the day we voted on PTSD protections for first responders. This bill says, if you answer our call for help time and time again as first responders do, we’re going to have your back–not just if you have a broken arm, but also if you’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, because of the trauma that you encounter on the job, we’re going to make sure you have the time and resources to recover.
The problem is the bill, when it hit the Senate floor, included only police officers and firefighters–who, by the way, suffer from PTSD to higher proportion than any other member of the public–but not EMS workers. That was for no reason other than probably the fact that EMS workers don’t really have a lobbyist, or at least a very good one. This had been a bill that had been negotiated for like six years. The option before us was to vote ‘no’ on the bill–meaning nobody gets PTSD protections–or support it, and unfortunately excluding EMS workers from PTSD protections.
It was a really late night. I stepped out of the chamber and I called an EMS worker in Weston and walked him through this decision I was making. He was mad as hell. He felt like his people, his team had been left in the dust, and to some extent they had and I felt guilty about that. What we were able to do at the last minute, both Democrats and Republicans came together, and we co-introduced an amendment that lays the groundwork to include EMS workers in the nextlegislative session, saying that we’re going to start a study to figure out how much this will cost. It explicitly says in statute that this bill is a first step. That being said, it killed me not to include them.
All that to say, this is one of so many issues where there’s a lot of gray, there’s a lot of difficult decisions. If I could leave with just one comment, it’s that I hope my constituents continue to reach out to me, even outside of the legislative session, about their ideas for what I should be doing in the next term. Because when we go back into the next session, we can’t do this job if we don’t listen and we can’t possibly do this job alone in a vacuum, we have to hear from our community.
GMW: You announced you were running a year and a half ago, and, started campaigning even before you graduated college, you hit the ground running and haven’t really stopped. You went right from the frying pan into the fire. Are you exhausted? Are you just as energized? Now that you’ve finished one session, how are you feeling?
Haskell: I wouldn’t have gotten through without my colleagues. If anybody should be able to pull all-nighters, it’s the 22-year-old kid. It’s these other legislators who’ve been doing it for decades and are still there at the two in the morning! [laughs] We’re trading jokes, we’re trading energy drinks, there are Democrats and Republicans, the passion that everybody brings into that building, it’s incredible.
That being said, I did need a day to relax [after end of session], but I’m back on it. I’m loving doing these Town Halls. In fact, I’ve got to run to my Ridgefield Town Hall right now, but I’m just tremendously proud that we’re in an era now in the state legislature where we’re finally forward-thinking, where we have a fiscally responsible budget.
It puts $2.6 billion in the rainy-day fund. It’s a moderate budget. It doesn’t increase the income tax. It doesn’t have a capital gains tax increase. It modernizes our system. It’s reduces the size of state government by 1,000 employees. It’s a budget that contributes more to education than in previous years. It also stays below the spending cap, the volatility cap, the bonding cap, all of which were agreed to on a bipartisan basis.
It’s a budget also that addresses the economic competitiveness of Connecticut by eliminating the business entity tax, by phasing out the income tax on social security and pensions, and by laying the groundwork for debt-free community college, which is going to give businesses the skilled workers that they need to compete in the 21st century. All of these things I would put under the umbrella of ‘forward looking,’ and that’s why I’m just so proud of the work we got done in the legislative session. But along that theme of forward-looking, I cannot wait to get back up there.