Norm on the Issues
The issues facing our state are complex and overcoming our challenges will require people working together to find solutions. Below are some of Norm Needleman’s thoughts on the most pressing issues facing our state. These ideas are meant to begin a conversation on how to move Connecticut forward.
In an election year, you’ll hear plenty of rhetoric about job creation. Politicians will be long on posturing, but short on real-world solutions or ideas. It is time to separate political talking points from the realities of job creation. The truth is that our state is not the economic disaster that some politicians would like you to believe. We have extraordinary quality of life assets: great elementary, secondary and higher education; access to good healthcare; a variety of cultural and recreational options; beautiful small towns, and attractive suburbs. What we haven’t done is forge these assets into a compelling appeal that separates Connecticut from the states surrounding us. And we haven’t addressed the financial and operational issues that affect the way the state is perceived. These tasks are daunting, and there is no quick fix.
A top priority is to construct a comprehensive economic development plan. Not just an advertising plan or a finance plan, but a comprehensive road map that directly addresses the tasks necessary to influence perceptions of our state as a business=friendly environment. The plan should tout our assets, clearly define a brand position for the state, propose ways to reassure businesses about state finances and operations, and quantify the resources necessary to aggressively deliver our market position to the business community. Politicians in Hartford have lacked the skills, credentials, or political will to develop a non-partisan business plan that can be the framework for attracting businesses to the state. We can no longer rely on knee-jerk and highly partisan reactions as a substitute for thoughtful solutions to the crucial issues facing us.
The State Budget
The process and the product of our current state budgeting efforts are broken. Partisan bickering, shortsighted legislators, and quick fix reactions to profound economic challenges are what got us into our current mess. All of that has to change. Revenue projections must be realistic, the hard decisions about spending priorities must be reality-based, and the budget development process must be inclusive, not exclusionary. I have developed balanced budgets in Essex for fifteen years, seven of those years as First Selectman. Working with Democrats, Republicans and Independents, our last 5 budgets were unanimously approved by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance, and at town meetings. It's not easy…tough decisions need to be made. We work together to focus on doing more with less, not on blaming each other for the problems we face. It is hard work, but it is the basis for stable government, and lower taxes. Today, Essex taxes are lower than 90% of the municipalities in our state. A disciplined, realistic budget process is central to that success. One thing I won’t do is follow the lead of some of the “budget experts” in Hartford: they take a victory lap for developing a budget that looks only two years into the future, and is out of balance the day it is passed.
I will fight to stabilize education funding for our towns, and I will work to make certain that taxpayer dollars are spent in the classroom, not on bureaucratic overhead. I support increasing the number of low-cost community colleges throughout the state, and expanding free trade schools to prepare young people skills for high paying jobs in technology-driven industries. I strongly support reducing the education funding requirements on our towns through legislation that includes state financing for special education. I also support easing the financial burden for college graduates by forgiveness of loans in return for remaining in the state workforce.
Everyone, including me, wants lower taxes. The best way to do that without compromising quality of life and vital services is to aggressively promote economic development in the district and in the state. Economic development drives revenue, which in turn fuels state support for the towns in our district, which in turn works to slow the increase of property taxes. I know from firsthand experience that a carefully planned focus on economic development works: when we reduced red tape and created a business-friendly environment in Essex, our town became home to over 700 businesses. This allowed us to achieve our ultimate objective, which was to keep property taxes among the lowest in the state. Those are the results I would work to duplicate throughout our district by focusing on economic development.
Women and Families
It is vital that we make our state attractive to young families who are the future of our communities, and who provide the workforce talents and skills essential to our business community. We should be proactive in making our state family friendly and attractive as a place for young people to live and raise their families. I support paid family leave and paid medical leave measures, and I support strong measures protecting women and children from sexual predators.
Gender pay equality
On average, women in Connecticut earn only 83 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, and the gap only widens for women of color.
As the owner of a business, I know we need to invest in our workers. Connecticut must do more to ensure equal pay for equal work for all Connecticut workers - regardless of gender - and deliver on the promise of equal opportunities to earn competitive salaries in the workplace. I will support legislation that accomplishes key objectives in achieving pay equality:
* Ban employers from using a worker’s previously earned wages as a defense against a charge of pay inequity;
* Impose strong penalties for companies that violate pay equity laws;
* Protect employees from losing seniority based on time spent on maternity or other family or medical leave;
* Strengthen the requirement that employers provide “comparable” pay for workers performing similar duties;
* Clarify the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities’ ability to investigate complaints of discrimination when wages are involved.
The seniors in our towns have spent their lives working, raising their families, supporting their community…and paying taxes. We should strengthen already existing property tax, income tax, and rental cost abatement programs to make certain our seniors can afford to remain in our towns. These programs include property tax relief for qualified seniors, and income tax relief for disabled seniors.
I also support expanding the help we give to seniors in need of care. We need to strengthen in-home care programs, double the number of nursing home inspectors, and require semi-annual surprise inspection of every nursing home.
When media-driven awareness of our state’s tourism assets was at its height, tourism provided $1.6 billion in tax revenues, $345 million of which was local tax revenue. As tourism marketing support declined, so did the awareness that drives tourism revenue. We cannot allow this vital revenue stream to erode.
I support the initiatives developed by The Connecticut Tourism Coalition. They are common sense ideas that will help to rebuild our tourism presence:
Create a 15 member volunteer Tourism Advisory Committee, whose role will be to recommend strategies to the Office of Tourism for maximizing use of tourism funds.
Appoint a Director of Tourism, a new position reporting directly to the governor
Commit 3% of all taxable lodging revenue as a sustainable source of tourism funding
Reopen visitor centers, using public or private funds
The Opioid Epidemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were 985 overdose deaths in Connecticut last year. As a former board member of the Rushford Addiction Treatment and Behavioral Health Facility I have seen firsthand that help and recovery are possible. I will use that experience to bring new energy and initiative to developing and supporting addiction counseling and recovery programs. I will work to secure funding for existing programs, and seek ideas for new initiatives.
I know I can do little to ease the pain of losing a loved one to an overdose, but I can offer a pledge to work tirelessly to help make our state a leader in confronting the addiction crisis.
I support funding to improve vital transportation infrastructure. Keeping our roads, bridges, harbors, and airports in good repair is essential to every element of our society and economy. The fact that previous legislatures and administrations have lacked the will and the fiscal discipline to fund transportation infrastructure improvements is the primary reason why I support a transportation lock box, which will guarantee that funds allocated for infrastructure improvement are used only for that purpose. Of course, if our elected officials had their stepped up to their responsibilities, resorting to lockbox legislation would not be necessary.
In recent years, there has been an alarming deterioration of response to power outages, causing inordinate delays in power restoration to homes and businesses throughout the region. It is my strong belief that this inadequate response to power outages is the result of two factors. First, Eversource has drastically reduced repair personnel and equipment, instead relying on resources from private contractors and service units from outside of their system. Second, and equally alarming, is the lack of operating management oversight in directing and coordinating whatever resources are available.
We are paying one of the highest rates in the country for electricity, and we should expect a world-class system, not a third world system. The lack of reliable electricity is a serious deterrent for new businesses considering locating in Connecticut.
Repeatedly, Eversource has ignored their responsibilities by failing to implement effective weather-related response and repair. Instead, they have chosen to implement staff and equipment reductions to effect cost economies. As a matter of public safety, Eversource should be required to maintain adequate outage response staffing and equipment levels. I strongly support legislation that will help remedy this crippling public utility problem, up to and including enhanced regulation of public utilities.
Equal Internet Access
The FCC has given a handful of communications companies free reign to decide which Internet services individuals and business can easily access. That decision significantly affects how the Internet works for every individual and business in our country, our state, and our district.
ISP’s are now free to manipulate Internet access to suit their own competitive and revenue objectives. They can charge more for access to the “fast lane”, and can limit access to services and outlets that compete with them. A few giant companies should not dictate the content and information we see and how we access the Internet every day.
The FCC decision will directly impact the residents and businesses in the twelve towns comprising the 33rd district, which have no options when it comes to modern broadband Internet. A top priority in Connecticut should be legislation that guarantees equal access to the Internet for all individuals and businesses. 29 states have already introduced net neutrality legislation, in direct response to the FCC ruling. I will be at the leading edge of the fight to make certain that Internet access for individuals and business is delivered on a fair and equitable basis. Common sense needs to prevail over the business interests of a handful of giant communications companies seeking to control access to information and entertainment.