By SHERIDAN CYR
With Connecticut’s state budget finally passed, Southington’s representatives swept into town to discuss the state’s finances with local residents. Democratic Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz kicked off the discussion in mid-November at the Carousel Coffee, and Republicans followed suit last week with a town meeting at the municipal center with Sen. Joe Markley joining state representatives John Fusco and Rob Sampson in the discussion.
Both discussions allowed residents to address the officials with concerns, most of which were related to the state budget and the debt that Connecticut faces, which has caused deep cuts to Southington’s budget in particular.
Last week, Markley noted that the governor makes an assessment about which towns can absorb the largest cuts. Because Southington is in “reasonably good shape, they got whacked,” said the state senator.
Fusco added that the towns which have been conservative in spending are being perceived as being able to withstand the large cuts. The message from the Republicans’ meeting was a call for a change to the executive branch of the government: to put into place a conservative Republican governor and to attain majority in the general assembly.
Markley noted over the last two years the state’s spending has increased by nine percent.
“The only way to fix our state is through economic growth,” said Sampson. “We need to grow our way out of this, to create jobs, to bring in industries, and to pay off our debts and reduce taxes.”
One recurring topic at the GOP discussion was the XL Center in Hartford, which Sampson said the bonding commission had approved an expenditure of $40 million to renovate. The building stretches across four city blocks and “has never been a success,” said Markley.
The entire renovation will cost around $250 million. Markley said that, once the $40 million initial investment is spent, there will be incentive to continue putting money toward it. His suggestion offered a different route for the four-block space: give it back to the city of Hartford and create a multi-use shopping center—restaurants, retail, etc.—along with a parking lot.
Fusco agreed. “We struggle with infrastructure,” he said. “Hartford would benefit from having something successful there.”
In 2014, Sampson reported, the XL Center saw around $35 million in renovations and was supposed to add 10 years to the building’s life. Sampson noted not three years later, they are looking for more funding for renovations.
The three Republicans made it clear they were not in support of the most recent state budget that was passed, repeating that the Republicans need to take majority in order to remedy the state’s current finances. Some structural changes that are included in the recent budget are a spending cap, a cap on bonding, and requirement to vote on union contracts.
One citizen said there are around 115 state employees per 10,000 residents in Connecticut, compared to 68 state employees per 10,000 residents in Colorado for example. The officials discussed scaling back on employees and having government play less of a role in the community.
Aresimowicz’s roundtable discussion at the Carousel Coffee Shop had a different tone, as he voted in favor of the budget.
“The way this state will correct itself is a combination of looking at spending, reductions, the right size of government, and saving money where we can where it makes sense,” said Aresimowicz. He reported that Medicare and Medicaid make up a third of the state’s budget, due to a “health care industry” rather than a “service.”
“There are a lot of people making decent money off of something that we should have as a basic right,” said Aresimowicz. “When you look at the salaries of CEOs of Hartford Healthcare of the drug representatives of the people who sell CAT scans and MRIs, there are a whole lot of people making millions off of the backs of the average person who just wants to afford to go to the doctor.”
He noted that the state has more wealth than ever before, but that it is concentrated.
One option Aresimowicz mentioned was regionalization in some areas. This means two towns would come together to share a service. Southington and Plainville share a health district currently.
He reported that officials are looking into state-funded programs that have reported to be off-budget but are now seeking to take back some of their funding. Previously the governor had the authority to cut programs as he see fit regardless of what legislators decide, but Aresimowicz said the newest budget defines—in statute—that the cuts cannot come from municipalities or education funding.
Members of both parties said that there is still work to be done in Connecticut. Both parties have serious concerns that stretch far beyond their short Q&A sit-down with state representatives. The most recent budget is donned the “bipartisan budget” as many constituents crossed party lines to vote for or against it.
Officials said that the best option for locals is to get in touch with their representatives, address concerns, and help them do their job: to represent Southington in Hartford.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.