On the Record: Wilton’s Three Legislators Answer Constituent Questions at WLV Forum

Wilton’s three state legislators took part in a virtual forum over the weekend to share with constituents what’s happening in the 2021 state legislative session. State Sen. Will Haskell, State Rep. Tom O’Dea, and State Rep. Stephanie Thomas answered questions submitted by the public on topics ranging from COVID-19 support, the state budget, religious exemptions and vaccines, absentee ballots and more.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Wilton Library and the Wilton League of Women Voters.

Each legislator presented an opening statement to define their priorities for this legislative cycle and to talk about what they hope to accomplish in Hartford (albeit virtually, as the General Assembly is meeting via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Haskell was introduced first.

He said the primary focus of everyone in Hartford “is the state’s ability to recover from this pandemic.” He said he was proud of how Connecticut has worked to stem the spread of the virus and distribute the vaccine thus far, and Haskell also complimented Wilton’s town leaders for their work handling the pandemic.

Making what he called a “natural segue” from discussing the public health crisis to his concern about “mak[ing] healthcare more affordable in the longterm,” Haskell endorsed the public option and called it “pro-business.”

“More than 700,000 people in the state of Connecticut work for small businesses. By creating a public option, which by the way, should have been done a decade ago when the affordable care act, if the insurance industry lobbyists hadn’t succeeded, it would allow folks who work for small businesses to buy into the same healthcare plan that Stephanie and Tom and I all enjoy as members of the legislature. It helps the state when more healthy people buy-in; it increases our negotiating power; and [when] more than half of Connecticut small businesses can’t currently offer health insurance to their employees, it allows those businesses to get those expenses off their books and reinvest in our local economy and in the growth of their business,” Haskell said.

He said he was pleased that the governor’s recently released budget “has no income tax or property tax hikes for our community and invests more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvements.”

O’Dea was introduced next.

O’Dea started out by commending Haskell for having reached across the political aisle to offer to co-sponsor a packaging bill on opioids that O’Dea has tried to get passed for the last eight years.

He said being a state representative is “professionally the best job I’ve ever had. I’m humbled and honored to represent Wilton and new Canaan for the last eight years and going into my ninth and hopefully 10th and on maybe.”

Like Haskell, O’Dea said dealing with COVID-19 is the top priority in Hartford, and much of the legislation is tied into how the pandemic has impacted the state. “That’s why I have so many mental health bills, [and] we need to grow business or the state is going to go nowhere. So my focus is on the pandemic and pro-business legislation and fixing some of the damage that was done in 2019,” he said.

Thomas was introduced last.

Just five and a half weeks into this new job, Thomas said her experience as a small business owner and being on the CGA’s Commerce Committee has framed her focus. “Our job number one this year is making sure that businesses first survive and then recover and grow.”

Like Haskell, she linked the topic of affordable healthcare to the economic and business issues in the state. “Other than labor, health care costs are the number one cost for most businesses. And it’s just becoming out of reach. In 2019, pre-pandemic, out of 700,000 employees of small businesses, less than half of them were able to receive health coverage through their employer. So hopefully we can solve that this year,” Thomas said.

She said her other big focus area is “all things voter access.”

As a member of the Transportation Committee, she knows there are “some serious transportation issues to solve,” and promises to “remain committed to thinking about things a little differently than we have in the past.”

Among the bills she’s introduced is one to put together a study group to look at allowing “gig workers”–independent contractors who have a stable earnings history–in many different business sectors.

Thomas has also introduced a bill to “look at a student loan forgiveness program that is linked to entrepreneurial startups by new graduates or recent graduates.”

“We definitely funnel student loan forgiveness into areas like nursing and manufacturing, but I think right now the cost of doing business is so high. We are seeing fewer recent graduates start businesses than any other time in our history in this country. And I think we need to start addressing that,” Thomas said.

Questions & Answers

Q:  Could you share your perspective on these two issues: no-excuse absentee ballots, and applying for absentee ballots online?

Tom O’Dea:  I do generally agree with no-excuse absentee balloting. I think Connecticut generally does a pretty good job. You know there’s fraud every year. We had a person in Stanford arrested on 20 felonies four years ago for fraudulently harvesting ballots and signatures, improperly signing ballots. So my goal would be to make sure it’s a secure process, open it up as much as possible, where we can maintain the security.

We’ve got a bill pending, conceptually, where the Secretary of State’s orders go through regs review. I don’t believe in the unsolicited mailing of ballots going out. My son got one and he’s not a Connecticut resident. So I don’t like the unsolicited mailing of absentee ballot applications. I do think we should have post-election risk-limiting audits, which is part of our proposal; and a pilot program for signature verification. But putting all those in, along with the no-excuse absentee balloting and the ballot boxes, I’m all in favor of.

Stephanie Thomas:  I would disagree with a couple of things that was just said. Here in Connecticut, we definitely have had a few cases of fraudulent behavior over the past decade, but it’s such a small percentage–it’s like 0.001% of all ballots cast. I don’t know that we need to over-correct by instituting all of these additional measures.

Obviously I’m a big supporter of expansion of many different ways for people to vote. I think a lot of people who use absentee ballots have been doing so illegally, so it would be nice to not put them in that position. I do believe that no-excuse [absentee ballots], we would have to have a constitutional amendment.

There is talk about sort of a work-around statute fix, but the constitutional amendment would be a better approach. But we just needed a super-majority so that it could be turned over to the public to vote if they agree.

The online application to me, honestly, this is the year 2021 where we can do anything online virtually. So not being able to apply for an absentee ballot… We’re not saying vote online. We’re not saying do anything else online except put in a request to have the ballot sent to you.

When I was campaigning last year, going door to door, it seemed to me that the parents and Wilton, Norwalk and Westport kept FedEx in business single-handedly because their kids didn’t have printers or whatnot. So they were printing out the ballot application, FedExing it to their children, wherever they were, the kids were FedExing it back to the town, et cetera.

It would just make perfect sense to apply online.

Yes, no-excuse absentee ballots, but we also need to look at making it easier for people to register. I’m a big proponent and put in a bill to expand our automatic voter registration system to go from beyond DMV, to other state agencies. And I’m really excited to see some other bills in the GAE [Government Administration and Elections] Committee, such as automatic registration when people turn 18, which I think would be huge for democracy and civics education.

Will Haskell:  Well, it’s really a pleasure to be back on the GAE Committee. I serve as vice-chair on that committee on the senate side, Representative Thomas serves as vice-chair on the house side. So we spend a lot of time talking about these issues.

This most recent election was a real success–66,000 people in my Senate district voted, there are about 100,000 people in the district altogether. So that means 9,000 more people than in the last presidential election participated. And it’s not a coincidence, it’s because Connecticut took those temporary measures to expand voter accessibility. Whether it was making sure everybody was eligible for an absentee ballot so that they could vote from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

I am just a steadfast believer that our government is stronger and more representative and more functional and more accountable when more people participate, not fewer. So I’ve been beating the drum on expanding access, to no[-excuse] absentee ballots for quite some time.

We’re going to need bipartisanship on this issue because we’ve got to amend the constitution, which could take a really long time if you only approve that constitutional amendment by 50%, or if we reached the critical 75% super-majority threshold in both the Senate and the House, then it will go to voters in 2022 to actually decide for themselves whether or not they want to make our democracy a little bit bigger, a little bit better, a little bit more modern.

I’ve been sort of obsessed with this admittedly niche issue of absentee ballot requests. We do so many things online now, from registering to vote, to renewing our driver’s license. It makes no sense that you can’t request your absentee ballot online. I wasn’t able to pass the bill in 2019. We came close in 2020 and then the pandemic got in the way. It is time to modernize our democracy in the year 2021. So you can count on my yes vote for both of those messages.

Q:  Gov. Lamont has extended Connecticut’s eviction moratorium until April 20 by executive action. Will the legislature be doing anything to address this issue, taking into consideration both the landlords’ and tenants’ interests? If so, what type of action might be taken? And if not, why not, since this is such an important issue to so many in the state?

Stephanie Thomas:  I’m not on any of the committees that have taken this up, but I will say when it has come up when I’m in conversation with my peers, everyone is focused on this issue. People are aware that once the moratorium ends, there will be a lot of families that are in trouble. People are committed to both intervening with tenants to try to make sure they don’t end up homeless, but also helping landlords.

Most people think of landlords as you these huge developers and whatnot, but I’m a member of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about there were a lot of landlords who own a two-family house or a four-unit building. And those people are also living hand-to-mouth, and losing out on the rent is a big issue for them as well.

Unfortunately, I wish I had a specific bill that I could point to, but I don’t off-hand, but I will say that there are many people in Hartford looking at both sides of the equation. Number one in Hartford is trying to make sure that everybody in Connecticut survives this pandemic and is able to thrive moving forward.

Will Haskell:  I was pleased that Gov. Lamont extended that eviction moratorium, but moratoriums are not a long-term solution. Of course, we shouldn’t be putting people out of their homes in the midst of a public health crisis, but I’ve been interested since 2019 in a bill in the Housing Committee that would ensure individuals who are suffering undergoing eviction scenarios, the right to counsel. It’s hard to imagine a more important time that you have a lawyer, an experienced and knowledgeable person standing by your side through what is an admittedly complex and often nuanced process.

So I support that right to counsel legislation in the longterm. In the shorter term, Congress passed a major economic relief bill in December, and some of that hasn’t actually arrived in Connecticut yet, or hasn’t yet been administered. I’ve been sort of a thorn in the side of the governor’s office and the CT Department of Housing, trying to make sure that they get their temporary rental assistance program up and running. Constituents at least once a week, reach out to me to ask how they can apply.

The answer is they can’t yet, which is really unacceptable. So I’m hopeful that that program will open up. For those who don’t know that program is available for those who need help with their rent. Some of the funding also goes directly to landlords. There are a lot of smaller landlords who are really struggling during this pandemic.

Also, $280 million is a lot in the scheme of federal assistance coming to Connecticut. So once this program is up and running, and hopefully that will be soon, it’s going to make a sizeable difference.

Tom O’Dea:  This crisis is similar to, at least from a housing standpoint, the foreclosure crisis of 2008. So what we did back then, and in 2010, 2011, 2012, what was done was in modifying the foreclosure procedures and in the judiciary. We should do something similar here where at the end of the day, when evictions go to housing court the courts are going to have to be instructed, (and there’s going to have to be some more assistance given we’ve cut judiciary budgets dramatically, so a lot of the social services and housing assistance that were provided years ago are no longer provided), we need to bolster that up and assist people that are going through eviction.

The owners of the property have to be given the same consideration by the banks. We’ve shored up the banks for decades and for them to go after the homeowners who are renting out or the commercial property, even if it’s getting rented out and they’re not getting the income, it’s wrong.

I would hope that our federal colleagues could do more in working with the banks and we can do obviously a lot here in Connecticut, but I think it’s more of a federal issue that trickles down to the state. But I think we do similar to what was done in the foreclosure crisis before, but now it’s going to be with more rentals. That all could be done if we help the judiciary staff and mediate these problems.

Q:   As a mother of four children who have been vaccinated, I’m concerned with the removal of religious exemption, which allows parents the ability to choose which vaccines they deem right for their child. I understand there will still be a medical exemption, but this is highly difficult to attain. If you believe in a woman’s right to choose, what is different about a mother’s right to choose what gets injected into her child’s body?

Will Haskell:  This is a fraught topic. If you disagree with me today, know that you aren’t the first to tell me this, and I respect your opinion.

The key difference between a woman’s right to make decisions about her own reproductive healthcare and the right to send your kid into a public school classroom that hasn’t been vaccinated is that the decisions you make about your own healthcare don’t jeopardize the livelihood and the health of others. But unfortunately, the decision not to vaccinate your kid and send that student into the public school does jeopardize students who are immunocompromised and can receive vaccines.

Connecticut requires school students to get vaccinated, but there are two exceptions. One is a medical exemption. There are many students who have underlying conditions, including autoimmune deficiencies, who simply can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. For the sake of those students, it’s really critical that we maintain herd immunity. And the CDC defines that as around 95% of students being vaccinated.

In recent years, there’s been a decline in vaccinations. We’re not talking about the COVID vaccine, the COVID vaccine hasn’t been tested or approved for minors. We’re talking about measles, mumps, rubella vaccines that have been around for a long time and nearly eradicated these dangerous diseases. But the decline in vaccination rates has been steep; the closest elementary school to where I live, Coleytown Elementary School has a vaccine vaccination rate in kindergarten for measles, mumps, rubella below 90%, in the 80s. That’s caused a lot of concern among public health officials. And Connecticut is not an outlier here. The same was true in New York and the same was true in California.

So people took a look at the other exemption, the other way that public school students aren’t vaccinated. And that’s the religious exemption. I met with a lot of parents who have claimed this religious exemption. Most of their concerns, frankly, aren’t exactly religious. Their concerns are about the efficacy of vaccines. And if parents don’t want to vaccinate their children, it’s their right not to do so. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding of constitutional rights, whether it’s your right to religious freedom or your right to free speech, that those rights stop the moment that you start to endanger the health and safety of others. That’s why you can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater, for example.

Although I’m a believer in religious liberty, I’ve got real concerns about the safety of our public school classrooms, making sure that they’re open and available to all students. So it’s a difficult issue, but like New York and like California, I believe that Connecticut should follow suit and eliminate the religious exemption when it comes to measles, mumps, rubella, and those long-standing vaccines.

I want to make sure that students who are immunocompromised feel safe, walking into every classroom and teachers feel safe walking into every public school classroom. So you don’t need to vaccinate your children, but if you want to send them into public schools, those vaccines that have been proven so safe and effective over the last few decades should be required.

Tom O’Dea:  This is what makes the country great, right? We disagree wholeheartedly on this issue.

Connecticut has one of the highest vaccination rates for its student population in the country. So yes, there is an increase in the amount of people that are seeking the religious exemption, but it’s still nowhere near what other States are facing as far as immunization rates.

So my compromise to Matt Ritter and others on the other side of the aisle (who privately tell me it makes a lot of sense) was simply that if a district goes below the national average and immunization rates, then that district has one year to rectify that. Now whether that’s a lottery system, so you only have a certain percentage of people claiming the religious exemption, but the district gets a year to fix that until the immunization rate is back up above the national average.

If they fail to do it after year one, year two the state comes in and we figure out the process by which they get the immunization rates in the district up to above the national average. And that may be the state saying, ‘Your religious exemptions are going to be limited until this is figured out.’

But that compromise, which privately was widely accepted, publicly I’ve been told that it’s not going anywhere, but I think it makes a lot of sense. I have yet to hear somebody tell me why we shouldn’t do the compromise.

Forcing parents to choose between public education and their belief that the amount of vaccinations is going to risk their child’s health is not right when you’ve got immunization rates above the national average. I am pro-vaccine but I am also pro-religious exemption, and vehemently so.

Stephanie Thomas:  This is a national issue. Virtually every state has been seeing declining vaccinations, but long story short, I do think this is the beauty of the process. Every state has different guidelines about religious exemptions, personal belief exemptions, medical exemptions. So I think we are right to be having this conversation to figure out how to make sure that Connecticut does not slip below the rate that we feel comfortable with here.

New York, and I think it was Maine, last year actually did away with both religious and personal belief exemptions.

This was a big issue when I was campaigning, I talked to a lot of people and one of the areas where I had difficulty accepting the legislation that was proposed was around what would qualify. A lot of parents who I thought had good reasons for seeking the medical exemption were unable to get one. So one of the parts of this bill that I’ve already heard legislators talk about a lot is how to make that medical exemption more fair and educate doctors around in what cases it should be applied.

All of those little nuances, I have every confidence that the Public Health Committee is working through those. I will be keeping a close eye on it. I’m definitely pro-vaccination, but let’s get the details right.

Q: The Connecticut health plan–would there be anything in that bill that would help a self-employed worker like myself? I have to buy my health care on my own, and that takes a huge part of my income. And together with that, could you also talk about what’s being done on prescription costs?

Tom O’Dea:  This is where Will and I disagree on the public health option.

We were told under Obamacare that our costs would go down and we wouldn’t lose our doctors. We were told that, and it didn’t work. Now I could be wrong. My crystal ball isn’t perfect. I truly believe the insurance companies–who don’t have clean hands on this either, particularly with regard to prescription costs–but the public health option is going to make some private health companies leave the business in Connecticut. So I think [with] that public option you’re going to see costs go up, not go down, but with the prescription costs.

I am opposed to the Connecticut health plan. Self-employed workers can get into the program. But the state plan I don’t think is the right way to go.

Stephanie Thomas:  Whoever asked that question, I love you. At one point I was a single woman business owner, and I could not afford health insurance. If I hadn’t been married and on my husband’s plan, I could have never started my own business. So the public option plan is for, as long as you have one employee–yourself–you’re set. You do have to be incorporated or sole proprietor or something like that, but most gig workers who are stable in that way meet that threshold.

The public option bill would also expand some of the Husky population. So this person, if she’s not incorporated, might fall into that category as well.

One thing that has changed, probably since this person wrote the question, the governor put out his legislative priorities and his governor’s bill a couple of days ago. He proposed something to solve healthcare. I think it’s called Covered Connecticut. His approach is more about allowing small businesses to pay a cheaper fee in the more traditional way than we see now.

He also did highlight trying to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible for what he termed ‘reasonable pricing increases’ for prescription drugs. I do know everyone in Hartford sees the issue with both the affordability of healthcare and the high price of prescription drugs, and we are trying to solve that piece.

Will Haskell:  Gov. Lamont does address prescription drug costs. His budget would cap the annual increases in the price of pharmaceuticals. It basically limited it at a rate of inflation plus 2%. Any drug manufacturer that exceeds that amount would get hit by a fine.

If your first reaction is, ‘Oh, this is just another money grab for the state,’ he explicitly says that those penalties would need to be used to support subsidies for health coverage.

States can make an incremental difference when it comes to prescription drug costs, [but] states can make a huge difference when it comes to adding competition into the insurance marketplace. That’s why I want to answer this question directly to the self-employed individual. Absolutely, this plan would benefit you if you have 50 or fewer employees, you can buy into the state’s very affordable health care plan.

And the insurance industry has this marketing campaign going. These ads that say passing the public option would hurt the insurance industry and would reduce executive compensation. That’s sort of the point, right? The principle of a free market is that when you introduce competition into the healthcare marketplace, everybody’s prices are going to go down. Not everybody needs to sign up for the state’s healthcare plan.

It’d be great to have more healthy people signing onto the plan to increase our purchasing power and our ability to negotiate with providers, but even if they don’t the mere fact that a more affordable plan is on the marketplace for small businesses, for self-employed, for those who work for nonprofits, it’s going to drive down prices for everybody. And I think that’s really valuable.

I think the public options should have been done a decade ago. And it should have been done at the national level. I recognize that this is a really tough vote for some of my colleagues who represent the Hartford area, where the insurance industry has brought back such major profits for the community, but it’s time to start putting people over those profits. And in my view, abide by those very free-market principles, which would add greater competition into the marketplace.

Q: Are you in favor of permitting an online application for an absentee ballot? Downloadable absentee ballot requests from the Secretary of State’s site are not serialized and not trackable. How would you address integrity concerns associated with online absentee ballot requests? 

Tom O’Dea:  It’s better than doing the mass mailing of absentee ballot requests, the online request. I’m in favor of it, as long as we do other things to protect the security of the ballot, like these signatures, the ballot box drop off.

Right now I’ve got a camera in my house around every side and it cost me $400. So I got to believe we can put security cameras in the ballot boxes to make sure that they’re not just destroyed, because if you could destroy the ballot box, then that disenfranchises a lot of votes. So, in addition to allowing the online and making sure it’s secure and not rife with fraud, if you compile that along with putting the video camera on the ballot box drop, making sure you have signatures verified, do the audit, have the Secretary of State’s orders going through regs review. Those are the kinds of things that can be done to give people confidence in the security of our election validating process.

Stephanie Thomas: Right now it’s not serialized, meaning a lot of people were able to request their absentee ballot through a variety of means. I’m not concerned with the security of requesting the ballot once the person is in the system as having requested it. That’s when it becomes trackable and none of that would change.

Will Haskell:  If we were to allow the online request of absentee ballots, the system would actually become a little bit more secure, a little bit more traceable because right now it’s just a PDF form that anybody could download, and then you could print off a hundred copies of the absentee ballot application, which wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Absentee ballot applications is a form that any voter could fill out. And if there’s a duplicate, then it would easily be caught by the town clerk. But by creating a secure portal through the Secretary of State’s website, for the purposes of election integrity, as Tom mentioned, we could actually see if a single IP address was applying for multiple absentee ballots under multiple different names. It could set off a flag where right now we have no ability to track those absentee ballot requests because it’s just that paper form.

I really do think that this is not only an election accessibility issue. It’s a voter integrity issue, and it’s a modernization of government issue. This is just a basic function of government that should be online.

Q: Regarding the ESSER 2 funds to school districts, of the $221 million for next year, Wilton will receive $173,000. Why such a small amount of funding during an emergency crisis, which all districts are experiencing?

Stephanie Thomas:  I did read the $172,000. I did not get a chance to compare it against some of the other towns. I’m sure there is a formula that the governor used to come up with that number. For people not familiar, that’s the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. That is money that could be used for loss of learning or air quality upgrades to the local schools. And every town in Connecticut was assigned an amount of this federal funding.

I’m sorry, I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to dig into the, beyond the numbers, so I don’t know how the governor’s set those levels. But I’m happy to look into it.

Will Haskell:  This is not a very politically popular statement that I’m about to make as somebody who represents seven suburbs that are reasonably well off, but it is true. Every district’s been grappling with this public health crisis, but some have been especially ill-equipped to grapple with remote learning. The state had to act quickly to set up wifi on entire city blocks in Bridgeport and New Haven because those students and families lacked access to broadband. They couldn’t connect to their classes remotely. Many districts students didn’t have laptops at home and had to undergo enormous amounts of technology purchases to make sure that they could continue to provide that high-quality education.

So I give huge credit to the Wilton Board of Education for PPE and plexiglass and adjusting busing schedules and hybrid learning opportunities and all of the headaches that they’ve had to deal with.

And I do believe that the state should provide some level of reimbursement for this community. That being said, we have to recognize, given the fact that there are 169 towns in Connecticut, that the pandemic has been a little bit uneven in its impact. It’s been especially hard for districts like Hartford and Bridgeport and New Haven, which I’d venture to guess got more than $172,000 in reimbursements. I’d venture to guess that that’s because they have a greater need in that community, but again, the legislature actually didn’t really play a role in that disbursement. It was a formula largely determined by the same guidelines as the Education Cost Sharing formula and distributed by the state of Connecticut department of education.

Tom O’Dea: What we’re seeing is an evolution of money going out of the smaller communities that, frankly, are very well run. New Canaan and Wilton have seen their educational monies go down almost 80-90% over the last five years. And the problem is this whole concept of, ‘Hartford knows where to send your money, once you send it to us.’

Time and time again, Hartford’s made mistakes, whether it’s the busway to nowhere that cost us $700 million… Hartford–we misspend money six ways to Sunday. I know the frustration from New Canaan and Wilton is large because we keep sending more money up and getting less back. This is just another example of it.

And then we’re faced with, there’s a 20-page bill to expand housing authorities’ abilities to go 15 miles beyond their municipal borders. That’s outrageous.

Hopefully, there’ll be more compromise up in Hartford, particularly with regard to regional issues, local issues than there was in 2019, in particular with regard to all the anti-business legislation.