As published in the Record Journal Wednesday October 17, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
NORTH HAVEN — Candidates in the 34th Senate District race differed on how to foster economic growth in Connecticut during a business- focused Tuesday morning forum.
Incumbent state Sen. Leonard Fasano, a Republican, championed tax credits and small business loans, while his opponent, former state Rep. Steven Fontana, a Democrat, said that lowering health care and energy costs would better help businesses.
The candidates fielded questions from panelists at a forum sponsored by the Quinnipiac Chamber of Commerce held at Ulbrich Steel headquarters in North Haven. The event was moderated by chamber member Christine Mansfield, of Wallingford.
“I think taxes are one of the most important issues facing businesses. We’ve got to change the tax structure, it’s just impossible for small businesses to survive,” said Fasano, answering a question from chamber lobbyist Betsy Gara asking how the candidates would resolve the top issues facing state businesses.
Fasano, a small business owner, also said the state should be assisting community banks with making small business loans.
Fontana said tax policy has“extreme limits” in terms of encouraging business. He champions lowering small business costs for energy and health care to help level the playing field.
“It costs small businesses a lot more to compete than it does large corporations. We can use the ability of the state to pool customers, to negotiate better rates on behalf of customers as well as to promote energy efficiency and conservation,” Fontana said.
Fasano disagreed with Fontana’s plan, saying that a pooling health plan had been passed but vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi M. Rell, a Republican, and purposely never taken up by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy upon taking office. He said this was because businesses with high-risk insurance costs would weigh down the state system.
Fontana said Rell’s veto was another example of Republican obstructionism in the state legislature, and added that there were different ways pooling could work.
Both candidates agreed that the state should invest in educational programs to better equip students to take on high tech jobs. Each has said in previous interviews that they’ve talked to high-tech business owners who say it’s tough to find qualified job candidates in the state.
On energy issues, Fasano said he believes in the state’s recent push to promote infrastructure for natural gas. That, along with tax credits for alternative energy technologies like fuel cells, he said, would make energy more affordable for businesses and energy-saving more attractive. He said that as a small business owner, he’s looked at some of the energy saving technology and found it cost-prohibitive, and that tax credits would help people in the same position purchase that technology.
Fontana, who chaired the state legislature’s Energy Committee for four years, said he agrees with what he has heard from residents, that tax credits don’t move people to do things like invest in alternative energy. He said he believes the state’s procurement manager should negotiate state-wide purchasing rates for energy for the state’s utility companies to obtain lower bulk costs.
Fasano said this type of bulk procurement is already in place. “That’s sort of happening on a private scale,” Fasano said.
He also said the state had the highest rates for power in the nation while Fontana was chairman of the energy committee, and said the legislature’s vote to deregulate electricity was a mistake, another measure Fontana voted for. The state deregulated electricity in 2000, prior to Fasano being elected.
“I’m not blaming the people who voted for it. ... I wasn’t there, so I’m not going to second- guess anyone’s vote because I wasn’t there to hear the arguments,” Fasano said.
Fontana, who had previously acknowledged that deregulation has not worked well, defended his vote, saying when the legislature voted on the issue, energy prices in the state were already the highest in the country and the business community came to legislators and testified that deregulation would lower rates.
“The business community came up to us and said you have to do something that will lower our rates,” Fontana said. “And it did temporarily.”
Both men voiced support for upcoming upgrades to the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line, and each had issues with the state’s proposed bus way.
The candidates also agreed that the state’s bipartisan jobs package passed late last year contains good plans, and time will tell whether all the projects within it work.
The candidates will appear together again Thursday at 8 p.m. at Wallingford Town Hall for another forum.
Laurie Rich Salerno / Record-Journal
Sen. Leonard Fasano, left, responds to a question while his opponent, Steven Fontana, takes notes.