Republican state Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. and Kate Tepper, his Democratic challenger, disagreed over taxes, spending and the role of state government during their 90-minute debate last Wednesday night, Oct. 17, at Norwalk Community College.
But their disagreements were cordial, and Cafero, at the end of the debate, said he loved Tepper's English accent.
Cafero, the House Republican leader who is seeking an 11th term, said Connecticut was the highest-taxed state in the country and that the state Legislature needed to get spending under control. He said Connecticut had a $100 million deficit just four months into the 2012-13 fiscal year and that high taxes to fund that spending discouraged people from opening businesses in Connecticut.
Cafero said the state unemployment rate, at 9 percent in August, was going in the opposite direction of the national unemployment rate, which is 7.8 percent.
"Government spends too much money," he said. "We have to get our spending under control."
Tepper, though, said she didn't believe Connecticut has the highest taxes in the country and that legislators ought to be asking how to raise revenue to invest in jobs and encourage businesses to come to Connecticut. She said tax cuts would "deprive people of necessary things" in difficult economic times.
"I don't think we can balance the budget with cuts," Tepper said.
Cafero replied, "You've just heard the difference in philosophy. My opponent believes we have a revenue problem. I believe we have a spending problem."
Cafero, a lawyer and lifelong Norwalk resident, cited several examples of wasteful government spending, including an audit of the state Department of Social Services that he said revealed the government had sent checks to people who died four years ago and a $650 million busway from New Britain to Hartford.
Tepper, a retired medical secretary and advertising copy writer who's lived in Norwalk for 32 years, replied that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had instituted plans to consolidate state departments to save money and had taken advantage of the government's ability to spend less by buying in bulk.
The two candidates also seemed to disagree over whether the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, which dates to January 2010, should be raised.
Tepper said it was too low and insufficient to raise a family. She said raising the minimum wage also would lead to more economic activity.
"When you raise the level of income for low-income people, that is immediately going to go back into the local community," she said.
Cafero said he believed in raising the minimum wage in good economic times, but not in bad times because higher-income people would want more money, too. He said it would cost small businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and lead to layoffs.
"Yes, there is a time and place to raise the minimum wage, but not when we're mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression," Cafero said.
On gas prices, Cafero said he favored zone pricing that said everyone in Connecticut would pay the same rate for a gallon of gas. But he said residents in the northeastern part of the state opposed that, believing their gas prices would rise to what Fairfield County residents pay. Cafero said the state had two gas taxes -- one is 25 cents a gallon, and the other is 7.5 percent of the wholesale price. He said he wants that second tax frozen at 7.5 percent.
Tepper said more people need to use mass transit.
"I know (gas) prices are high. I think if we all had to pay more for gas, we certainly would use less of it," she said.
Tepper said the state needed to start repairing its infrastructure and suggested an EZ Pass toll for tractor-trailers entering Connecticut. She said state legislators need to start thinking about burying utility lines, though she said that would be expensive.
Cafero said Connecticut needs to prioritize its spending on roads and transportation. He said the state has more than 1,800 bridges "that are sub-par, that are actually dangerous to public safety," but was spending $650 million on the nine-mile busway from New Britain to Hartford.
"We invest in that and let 1,800 bridges rot and deteriorate," he said. "That makes no sense."
He said tolls could have unintended consequences if tractor-trailer drivers avoided them by leaving the highway and clogging up local roads.
The debate also touched on exclusively local issues, including the increase in violent crime in Norwalk and how to address it.
Cafero said the legislature needed to support State Police and local police departments as much as possible and that a balance needed to be struck on gun laws, "where we don't punish legitimate gun owners, but crack down on illegitimate gun owners."
He also favored programs in schools that spoke out against gang violence.
Tepper said the Focused Deterrence program, which she said is now in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, ought to be in Norwalk.
"As a legislator, I would work very hard to bring it to Norwalk," she said. "This certainly would help as far as gun violence is involved."
Cafero and Tepper both said they did not support early release for violent criminals, which is a law passed by the state legislature and signed by Malloy last year. Cafero said a violent criminal who was released early had shot a toddler, and two others had committed murder.
"You can't have a program that lets violent criminals out early," he said.
Tepper agreed, adding that early release for non-violent criminals would save the state a lot of money.
Cafero and Tepper also found common ground on Malloy's education reform bill and on same-sex marriage.
Tepper said she wouldn't change any part of the education reform bill, but said its elements should be looked at down the road to determine their effectiveness. Cafero said he voted for the bill and that it was "a good first step," though he was initially concerned about its "cookie-cutter mentality."
On same-sex marriage, Cafero said he didn't want to repeal the state law and that two people who love and are committed to each other should have full legal rights.
"I don't see anytime in my tenure that I would ever vote to overturn that," he said.
Charlotte Garrell, who moderated the debate for the League of Women Voters, said, "Same question, Miss Tepper."
Tepper replied, "And the same answer."