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Friday, December 15 Local

Republican gubernatorial hopefuls trade wish lists

WINDSOR — The core seven Republican gubernatorial hopefuls kicked off the 2018 campaign on Wednesday night, promising to change the state’s penchant for taxes and drastically cut government spending.

During a two-hour forum sponsored by the Republican State Central Committee, the candidates criticized the number of state employees and their benefits. They charged that Democratic majorities in the General Assembly over the past 20 years have bloated the size of government and state-employee benefits.

“It’s not just a manner of which agencies you cut,” said Dave Walker of Bridgeport, a former comptroller general of the United States under both Republican and Democratic presidents. “It’s grown too big, promised too much, needs to be restructured,” he said. “The USS Connecticut is sinking.”

“Every state agency should be audited and each of them should be downsized 124 percent,” said Peter Lumaj of Fairfield, an Albanian-born immigration lawyer.”

Steve Obsitnik of Westport, a tech consultant, said that DMV transactions should not take four hours like it did with his father-in-law recently.

Tim Herbst, former Trumbull first selectman, said his first target would be to revamp the DMV and the second would be the Department of Transportation. He believes half a billion dollars can be saved by allowing non-profit social-service agencies to take over more.

“We need to attack the regulatory environment in our state,” Herbst said, vowing to appoint an inspector general if he is elected to root out waste throughout government. “We can transform government, make it smaller and smarter.”

Mike Handler, Stamford’s chief financial officer, said he was proud to privatize the city’s nursing home, the Smith House, keeping the facility open while saving the city $5.5-million a year.

“Why don’t we get out of the pension business once and for all,” he said, suggesting that the current state employee retirement plans be converted into 401(k) plans.

State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan of Glastonbury, a physician, said he wants to “revive Connecticut and make Connecticut prosperous again.”

All six of the candidates called for major changes in the state tax codes. Lumaj, however, went the farthest, saying that the income tax should be repealed for families making $100,000 and less and proposing a lower sales tax.

More than 500 people attended the forum, which was moderated by Jenn Bernstein of Fox 61 TV and Christopher Keating, The Hartford Courant’s state Capitol bureau chief.

The candidates took the stage in the auditorium at Windsor High School at 6 p.m., holding microphones, walking freely around the stage, then resting on stools with small desks.

In response to the debate, state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Balletto said that every GOP candidate carries baggage from Washington.

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"The shadow of Donald Trump hangs over each and every Republican candidate on that stage tonight,” Balletto said in a statement before the event. “All of them have shown time and again that, when given the choice between fighting for Connecticut families or following Trump and his national GOP allies, they will choose Trump every time.”

After the first hour, during a brief break, state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton arrived. She admitted that while she has filed an exploratory committee, she has not committed to any particular office, including governor.

During a segment on the expansion of casino gambling, Boucher said tax policy is the over-arching concern. “Bridgeport does deserve to decide on their own which way they want to go with this,” she said of the effort by MGM Resorts to possibly locate a facility there.

All seven of the hopefuls said they oppose the legalization of marijuana for adult recreation use.

“I think public safety trumps a little revenue,” Walker said, suggesting that the number of afflictions for which patients could be eligible for the state’s medical-cannabis be expanded including post-traumatic stress, which is already part of the program.

“We have to learn from other states,” Srinivasan said.

“Perhaps I think we have a lot of decision makers (who) are using too much of the product,” Herbst quipped, before stressing that the state is in the middle of an opioid crisis that threatens public safety.

Those interested in possibly running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, including Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton; Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti; Bob Stefanowski, a Madison financial executive; David Stemerman, a Greenwich hedge fund millionaire; Peter Thalheim, a Greenwich builder; and Joe Visconti of West Hartford, a failed 2014 gubernatorial candidate, did not attend the event.

Ken Dixon|State Capitol reporter/columnist Hearst Connecticut Media

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