By John Fitts
CANTON – In a generally amicable but occasionally tense event, local candidates for the state legislature answered a variety of questions at a League of Women Voters of Canton forum on Tuesday evening.
Republican state Sen. Kevin Witkos, his challenger, David Peña of Avon and Republican state Rep.Tim LeGeyt, who is unopposed, answered the same set of audience questions, particularly focusing on the state economic climate, retaining businesses and young people and public infrastructure.
LeGeyt represents Canton and Avon. The 8th senate district is much larger and includes Avon, Barkhamsted, Canton, Norfolk, Hartland, Simsbury, Colebrook and portions of Granby, Harwinton and Torrington.
In many cases, the candidates agreed on issues and in expressing confidence to get the job done.
Peña, a past president of the Avon Chamber of Commerce, a local businessman and five-term Avon Town Councilor, said he can offer a fresh perspective at the state legislature and has the ability to work with people from all viewpoints, is passionately pro-business and has been able to work effectively with the majority party in Avon, even on budget issues.
Peña emphasized energy costs, transportation issues, a push for term limits and his ability to come in with a fresh perspective.
“I honestly do think I can make a difference,” Peña said. “I’d be looking at it with a fresh eye and just because someone tells me that’s the way it’s always been, that’s not the way I work. I’d be representing you every day.”
Witkos, a retired police officer, is Senate Minority Leader Pro Tempore and in his fourth senate term. He previously served six years as a state representative.
He also touted his ability to work with the opposing party, history at the state legislature and his push for jobs, business confidence, urban school opportunities, government trust and a move for a constitutional amendment to protect the state’s open spaces.
“I’ve developed some great relationships working across the aisle,” he said.
LeGeyt, a retired school teacher, who was first elected to the state legislature in 2008, also bemoaned high costs and burdensome regulations and an all-too-big government
“Our beautiful state of Connecticut is being compromised,” he said. “(We are a) state of such rich heritage, history, such natural beauty and recreational opportunity, such educational tradition, such artistic cultural presence and such a respectful and opinioned citizenry. Our great state is being compromised by a lack of consideration for the workers and businesses that provide the revenue to support the unsustainable size of our ship of state.”
During the forum, each of the candidates agreed that the state faces many challenges to local businesses, infrastructure and retaining its young people.
On some questions, all were in agreement. For example, each said they were not in favor of setting tolls on state highways.
When it came to a question about the possibility of lowering speed limits on Route 44 to cut down on accidents, the candidates generally agreed that that action alone might not be effective. Peña, who also talked about texting and driving, and Witkos agreed that it also wasn’t a task the state legislature should involve itself in and should remain an issue between the state Department of transportation and the local traffic authority (general the chief of police).
“There are so many factors that affect safe driving,” added LeGeyt, who also floated the idea of lower speed limits at night.
There were some tense moments in the debate.
During a question about helping the non-traditional college student find work, Witkos bemoaned the idea that the governor is allegedly considering cutting some vocational technical programs.
LeGeyt agreed that technical programs, as well as community colleges, were great partners and could be even more so in getting people to work.
Peña also touted such skills but took the question as a chance to criticize Witkos’ support of closing the University of Connecticut’s Torrington branch, which had just with just 136 total students this past Spring and 88 full-time undergraduates.
Witkos, who attended college on that campus, said it was a painful decision and said there is the potential for a local technical school to utilize the space.
“It was a very tough decision but in this economic climate, tough decisions have to be made.” Witkos said.
But Peña contended that the closure didn’t consider the bigger picture of student hardship and the local economy.
“That’s the last thing Torrington needs right now,” he said.
But the tensest moment was during a question about lowering electric rates for businesses.
During the discussion, Peña criticized Witkos’ position with Eversource.
“Having a $55,000 payment from the electricity company is not in our best interest as far as I’m concerned,” Pena said.
“Huge stretch and a low blow Dave,” Witkos countered, stating that he had sought a formal opinion from the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board and recuses himself from any decision that could involve Eversource. He later accused Pena of not understand that the Public Utility Regulatory Authority dictates how energy companies can set rates, not the state legislature.
Peña agreed that Witkos was likely taking all the steps he talked about but insisted that residents still didn’t know who Witkos is listening to and said it’s a bigger issue of trust and appearance.
“It just doesn’t smell good,” Peña said.
“It’s a career that I’m providing for my family and I’m proud of it,” Witkos said.
The candidates also answered questions on regulations and Witkos said there were many that were burdensome on business. He offered a couple examples, including the fact that dentists must pay a fee on each x-ray machine twice per year. Pena said he was also familiar with that one and, if elected, offered to review regulations to see which ones could be eliminated.
The candidates touted their ability to work across party but Witkos heavily criticized the developing of budgets behind closed doors with just a few members of the majority party and the governor.
“It’s about communication. It’s about mutual respect,” Witkos said. “That’s what happens in Hartford except when it comes to talking about budget. . . There is no respect, there is no communication, because the door is slammed in your face if you’re the minority party … as minority party, we represent a third of the people in the state of Connecticut. We should have a seat at the table.”
Republicans need a majority in one chamber of the legislature to truly change that, according to Witkos.
“That’s the only way we’re going to have a true conversation in Hartford,” he said.
But on other issues, there have been improvements, according to the sitting legislators.
LeGeyt said Democrats in the house and senate are working better together in the past couple of sessions, especially since they are now 12 seats apartment and with many common interests. are finding common ground.
There is a much more balance initiative on either side toward putting legislation in place,” he said. “There are things happening it’s not all everybody goes to their own corner.”
The governor also came under criticism when it came to the state deficit with all three candidates saying it was hard to address an issue when various numbers are being floated.
A more uplifting note came during a question about positive things the state has done for young entrepreneurs.
Each said there are good things that are happening on that level.
LeGeyt, for example, praised the Department of Economic and Community Development for its positive work in that area.
But perhaps the most lighthearted moment came from moderator Meg Gaines, who pointed the fact that Witkos and Pena shared a microphone during the forum.
“I do think the sharing of the mic was a good idea, “ she said. “I think we should pass it on to national level – just saying.”
If you missed the forum, it is scheduled for broadcast on Nutmeg Television for 8 p.m. on Oct. 27, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.