ESSEX— It was a large crowd for a short debate. That was the scene Friday evening as more than 200 residents from the 36th House District towns of Chester, Deep River, Essex, and Haddam jammed Essex Town Hall for the debate between Democrat Phil Miller and Republican Janet Peckinpaugh.
Miller, the four term first selectman of Essex, and Peckinpaugh, a former television news anchorwoman who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in the 2nd District last year, face off Feb. 22 in a special election to fill the seat left vacant when former Democratic State Rep. James Spallone assumed the position of deputy secretary of the state.
Along with opening and closing statements, the candidates responded to five questions that were submitted and pre-screened before the debate. With the candidates not taking advantage of rebuttal opportunities that were part of the initial debate program, the session that was scheduled to last for one hour ended in about 35 minutes.
Miller, in opening remarks, cited his 12 years of municipal government experience as a selectman and first selectman in Essex. Miller said his successful effort to organize a six-town alliance to sponsor a pump-out boat operation to reduce discharges of sewage from boats in to the Connecticut River is a sign that he is a “consensus builder” who would be ready to fight for the district towns “on day one” if elected to the General Assembly.
Peckinpaugh declared she is “not a politician,” but a former journalist and small business person who would bring “a new perspective with fresh ideas ”to the legislature. She said Connecticut is in a “dire” situation, with a minimal job growth and a looming $3.5 billion budget shortfall.
In responding to a question about the budget shortfall, Peckinpaugh said “we do not even need to talk about taxes,” and called for “across the board cuts” in spending and possible privatization of the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state departments.
Miller said he would work with Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy to resolve the state’s budget problem through a combination of spending reductions and potential new revenue sources. “We can reduce the state workforce through attrition and reorganization, but it has to be done carefully,” he said.
Responding to a question about property taxes, Miller said the state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund public education was a “white elephant” that needs to be addressed through reforms. Miller noted that he had initiated a property tax relief program for the elderly in Essex that helps reduce the tax bill for low and moderate income elderly homeowners.
Peckinpaugh acknowledged that local property taxes are a “heavy burden” for many Connecticut residents, but suggested the state must focus on reducing spending before undertaking any new far-reaching reform of the property tax system and other taxes.
A question on the amount of time that would be dedicated to the legislative position prompted the sharpest exchanges between the candidates. Miller has said that if elected state representative, he would also continue serving as first selectman of Essex through the end of the current term in November. Miller said he wants to honor his commitment to the voters of Essex and noted that Connecticut has a part-time legislature. “I am a hard worker and would do anything I need to do both jobs” he said.
Peckinpaugh said serving as a state representative “is really a full-time job,” particularly with the increasing number of special sessions and pledged to “give full-time attention to the legislature whenever it is necessary.” She said Miller’s intention to hold both jobs through November is a sign that he would “conduct business as usual and take care of himself” if elected.
The two candidates will face off again Thursday in a question and answer session that is open to the public at Chester Village West, a retirement and life care community on Route 148 in Chester. The session begins at 4:30 p.m.