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Friday, April 27 News

Campaign finance, Metro-North woes and health-care concerns dominate legislative forum

The influence of money in political races struck sparks at a state legislators' forum Saturday in the Fairfield Museum and History Center.

State Sen. John McKinney, a Fairfield Republican running for governor, criticized Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy over the issue, while state Rep. Kim Fawcett, the only Democrat on the four-member panel, took issue with McKinney's criticism.

The state legislators representing Fairfield, who also include Republican state Reps. Tony Hwang and Brenda Kupchick, also fielded questions on problems with Metro-North Railroad, whether the federal Affordable Care Act is working and whether highway tolls should be implemented in the state to fund infrastructure improvements.

Margaret Mary Fitzgerald, a Fairfield League of Women Voters' official who served as moderator, opened the forum by saying the state in 2005 had passed what she said was arguably one of the strongest campaign finance laws in the nation. She then asked the legislators whether a recently passed state law that changed how political races can be financed means the state had "lost its resolve to put an end to Corrupticut."

McKinney, R-28, said the new law, which Fawcett, D-133, said was passed in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a case known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, marks "a tremendous retreat from the 2005 law." McKinney said the 2005 state law had prohibited donations from lobbyists and state contractors.

McKinney said the state, under a law signed by Malloy, now allows lobbyists and state contractors to give $10,000 per person to a state political party and the amount that the party can spend on an individual race is unlimited. He said the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers had given $10,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee and has a contract to run the XL Center in Hartford. "At best, that's a huge perception problem," he said.

Fawcett said the law now in effect is not ideal, but that McKinney has an interest in going after Malloy because of McKinney's candidacy for governor and suggested he has a political bias. She said the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling essentially directed Connecticut to undo its 2005 bill and that the state's existing campaign finance law affects both parties. "The best thing voters can do is watch where money is coming in and where it's flowing. It's not going to be a pure system and it's going to flow on both sides," she said.

McKinney disputed that the U.S. Supreme Court had instructed Connecticut to revise its campaign finance laws. "What they said was individuals, corporations and unions can spend as much money on any campaign they want but it can't be coordinated money," he said. He said the ban on coordinating money should apply to donations received by state political parties. "Should any governor or state legislator be allowed to call a state contractor to give $10,000?" he asked.

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Kupchick, R-132, said she didn't vote for the new law and that it "really did blow up our fair election process." Kupchick said one reason the state legislature passed the 2005 law was the "pay to play" scandal when former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland was in office, which led to him going to jail. "Now it's back and that's not good for the state of Connecticut," she said. "I think it really completely turned fair elections and open and fair campaign financing on its head ... I think it really prevents the average, everyday citizen from having a voice."

Fitzgerald then asked whether the General Assembly in its new session would try to decrease or limit the use of outside money in campaigns.

McKinney said he would be "very vocal" about it. "We'll take a vote on it before the election. I don't know if it will pass and doubt the governor would sign it," he said.

Hwang said, "The cat is out of the bag and the money flow has already started." He said the General Assembly passed a law that would have required more disclosure of where money was coming from but Malloy vetoed it.

Regarding Metro-North, Kupchick said she had heard from a rail commuter and constituent who said it used to take less than an hour to get to Grand Central Terminal in New York City from town, but now takes 30 minutes longer. She said all the state legislators from Fairfield County care about problems with Metro-North, but they're a minority in the General Assembly and the rest of the legislators don't realize Fairfield County "is the economic engine of the entire state."

Kupchick said infrastructure used by Metro-North, which Fawcett said is the most traveled rail system in the nation, is getting worse every year and would cost billions of dollars to fix. "This really is a serious situation that needs everyone's attention," Kupchick said.

Fawcett said the state's mass transit system is "a mess" and that a top priority to her husband, who rides Metro-North, and her constituents is to ask the state to put together a long-term infrastructure improvement plan. "We don't have a plan. We spend money on transportation infrastructure improvement projects sort of shooting from the hip," she said.

Improving Metro-North and reducing rail travel times between New Haven and New York would have the added benefit of getting commuters off Interstate 95, Fawcett added.

Hwang, R-134, said the state is now roughly half way through a 60-year contract with Metro-North and that he believes the railroad needs better accountability and more reporting responsibilities to the state, which are lacking in the existing contract.

McKinney agreed that the state is not in a strong position to make changes because of its contract with Metro-North. But he said the state shouldn't have spent $563 million on a nine-mile bus lane in the Hartford area, and that legislators should demand Connecticut's transportation fund not be raided to cover shortfalls in the state operating budget. "The past few years, $200 million has been taken out and spent in the general fund," he said. He also noted that despite all the improvements in technology over the past several decades it now takes longer to travel on Metro-North from Fairfield to Manhattan than it did 30 to 40 years ago.

On the Affordable Care Act, McKinney said the "early evidence is the Affordable Care Act is not working." He said 34,000 Connecticut residents have signed up for health insurance on the state's website, but 38,000 residents lost their health insurance because of the federal law's coverage requirements. He said "countless people" had told him they received cancellation letters from insurance companies and many who got new plans found their monthly premiums doubled. "For some people with a subsidy, they can get health insurance for less. For more people, the cost has increased," he said.

McKinney said the federal law now just affects individuals who buy health insurance, but it would affect group policies and corporations next year. Some Connecticut companies are reducing employees' hours to avoid the federal law's requirements and the state is losing health-care providers, McKinney said.

Kupchick said she personally didn't like the law and that whenever the federal government takes over anything, "they screw it up." She said improving access to health insurance could have been done without "a complete takeover" by the federal government. She said Connecticut residents are seeing higher premium costs, the state is losing doctors and funding to hospitals is being reduced.

Fawcett said her party's "biggest political fumble" of 2013 was the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. "It was a disaster," she said. "It's really been disheartening it's not what any of us envisioned." Fawcett said her concerns going forward are the cost of health insurance plans and the strength of provider networks.

But Fawcett said Connecticut has an effective website to sign up for health insurance, with "a model of competition" with five providers of health insurance on its exchange. She said people with pre-existing conditions could now purchase health insurance, no one would lose insurance because of a health-care crisis and residents would no longer see "wild annual up-ticks in premiums." "We have stabilized that so year in and year out we're controlling how much premiums go up," Fawcett said. "Businesses are going to have some stability there." "I'm willing to give it a chance. I have a lot of concerns, certainly on the front end," she said.

Hwang said the law has "profoundly and adversely impacted small business jobs and the economy." But he said a major problem with amending the law is the extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C.

Former Republican Selectman Steve Elworthy, who spoke from the audience, said, "I think what's happening is a lot of people are getting sick worried about whether they're going to have insurance or a job." After laughter subsided, Elworthy said, "This is not a laughing matter. I have friends who are directly affected by this."

J. Alfred Dunn, another audience member, indicated support for the federal law by asking the state legislators how many were familiar with the obstacles that confronted officials when implementing Social Security and Medicare decades ago.