AREAWIDE— Votes on the state budget and other issues during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions were the focus of Tuesday’s debate between the two rivals for the 36th House District seat, incumbent Democratic State Rep Phil Miller and Republican challenger Vince Pacileo.
About 40 voters turned out for the debate held in the auditorium at Valley Regional High School in Deep River, less than half the number that turned out in the same hall for the Oct. 17 debate between the three candidates for the 33rd Senate District seat. The debate was sponsored by the Essex Library Association, with Library Director Richard Conroy posing questions that had been submitted in advance by district voters. The 36th House District includes the towns of Chester, Deep River, Essex, and Haddam.
Miller, a former four-term first selectman of Essex, was elected in a February 2011 special election for the seat that had been held for a decade by Democrat James Spallone of Essex. Spallone resigned weeks after winning election for a fifth term to take a job as deputy secretary of the state. Pacileo had served with Miller as the minority Republican on the Essex Board of Selectmen from 2003 to 2009. Pacileo was also the unsuccessful Republican challenger to Democratic State Senator Eileen Daily in the 33rd District in 2008.
While serving as a state representative in the past two legislative sessions, Miller cast votes on a 2011-2012 state budget that included numerous tax increases, and several other issues such as allowing sale and use of medical marijuana for certain conditions and repeal of the state’s death penalty. Pacileo made several of these votes, particularly those involving taxes and spending, a focus of criticism during the 90-minute debate.
Pacileo contended the tax increases the Democrat’s legislative majority had approved in 2011 to cover a $3.5 billion budget shortfall have hampered the economic recovery in Connecticut, and the four district towns. “Small business owners are suffering under the tax policies of this administration,” he said.
Pacileo called for reducing the state income tax and repealing the estate tax, while ending a state earned income tax credit for low paid workers that was initiated last year. He called for restoring the state tax exemption for purchases of clothing costing less than $50.
Miller defended his 2001 budget and tax votes, noting majority Democrats had not “kicked the can down the road” by adopting a state budget plan that addressed the large budget shortfall while preserving state aid and grants for cities and towns. “Our cities and towns were held harmless,” he said, adding the state aid helped limit hikes in municipal property taxes.
Miller said any remaining state budget shortfall would be covered by spending cuts, but he would not commit to supporting any possible tax reductions during the next two-year term. “Nobody likes to raise taxes but that is what governments do,” he said.
Miller also defended his votes earlier this year in favor of medical marijuana and repealing the death penalty. Pacileo called for restoring the death penalty, and suggested there should have been further medical research before allowing medical marijuana.
A question on protecting the Connecticut River led Pacileo to contend Miller had shifted positions last year on the controversial but now cancelled Connecticut River land swap that would have exchanged land near the river for interior forest land in Haddam. Pacileo said Miller was “for it before he was against it.” Miller said he had listened to initial presentations on the land swap, but opposed the deal after learning more and led an unsuccessful effort in the House to block a broader statewide land conveyance bill that included the Haddam properties.
Miller said he brings municipal government experience to the Legislature, and described Pacileo as “an ideologue,” adding “if you think the sky is falling he’s probably a better person to vote for.” Pacileo said the 36th District contest presents “a clear choice” for voters. “You are what you’re record is and we need a change of direction,” he said.