Candidates spar over gun control and more

Monday night’s debate between the Democratic and Republican candidates for the State Senate 14th District seat started out politely enough.

Pam Staneski, the Republican, talked about legislation she helped pass as state representative in the 119th District that brings reform to controversial affordable housing legislation. She talked about working with constituents when they asked for help, and she talked about the need to fix the state’s “financial mess.”

James Maroney, the Democrat, said the State of Connecticut has many positive attributes, though it certainly has some problems. He said making the state more business-friendly and applying innovative thinking to the way the state does business can help unleash the state’s potential. He said many people in the state are still struggling and they need a way to afford their property taxes so they can stay in Connecticut. It’s time for “a new day” in Connecticut, he said.

But then the gloves came off and the two candidates traded barbs on several issues before a crowd of about 150 at the Plymouth Men’s Club-sponsored debate.

The first was gun control. Staneski, inferring that the moderator’s question about gun control focused on her vote against a bill that banned bump stocks, said Connecticut has the most stringent gun laws in the country, but they are not enforced. She said she has supported funding for school resource officers, the statewide firearms trafficking task force and mental health services, measures she said have direct impact on gun safety.

Maroney took her to task, saying he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but said there needs to be thoughtful legislation. Talking about the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which the shooter used bump stock devices and killed 59 people, Maroney pointed out that 1,000 people were shot.

“One man was able to shoot 1,000 people in the amount of time it takes an egg to cook, and that’s not right,” he said.

“Why would you want to allow modifications to a semi-automatic rifle to make it fire like a fully automatic weapon?” he asked.

Staneski argued that the bill in question had flaws.

“That bill that you referred to did nothing to keep our streets safer,” Staneski said, adding that it had unintended consequences. She said she met with paintball gun enthusiasts and veterans who shoot guns for sport, and she said the legislation that passed makes felons of them as of Oct. 1.

Maroney, who was state representative of the 119th District before Staneski won the seat from him in 2014, said he knows that bills sometimes have unintended consequences, and he asked Staneski if she proposed an amendment to avoid that. He accused her of voting against any gun legislation.

The two started out agreeing somewhat on how to keep young people from moving out of the state. Maroney said the state needs to have top notch education, and needs to offer tax credits for companies that help pay off student loans. He also talked about business partnerships that lead to the creation of apprenticeships.

“I think we agree,” Staneski said, saying that she has supported business partnerships to offer apprenticeships, and she said she supported legislation that makes it easier for a school to tailor a program to a company's needs.

But Maroney came back, saying that the Republican-backed budget cut more than $400 million from higher education, which he said was one of the deepest cuts “in the history of the country.” He said reductions in education funding played a part in UConn dropping from 18th to 22nd in a national ranking, and nearly led to the demise of a scholarship program that, if cut, “would have eliminated scholarships for over 500 families in our community.”

Staneski said Maroney didn’t have all the facts: She said she exposed more than $1 million left on the table because students who received grants didn’t finish their education, “and that was a waste of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

In terms of UConn, Staneski said, “The drop from 18 to 22 did not happen because of reductions in state spending. I will tell you right now there are audits going on with UConn. As ranking on higher ed, I’m appalled at the fact that they spent money that we have bonded, that you’re paying for, to put in pavers with UConn emblems on them instead of spending it on the Next Gen program that they were supposed to.”

Both agreed that the opioid crisis needs to be addressed and that it’s a problem that is not going away anytime soon. Staneski, who co-founded the Milford Prevention Council, said some steps have been taken on the state level to reduce the number of pills a doctor can prescribe following a surgery, to mandate education upon prescription of those drugs, and to track prescriptions when people try to fill them at more than one pharmacy.

Maroney applauded Staneski for her work with the Milford Prevention Council, and he gave a shout out to Democratic State Rep. Kim Rose of the 118th District for advocating for a bill that sets up prescription drop boxes for people to get rid of unused prescriptions.

Maroney and Staneski agreed that there needs to be better information sharing among doctors.

The two sparred over the budget, Staneski accusing Maroney of “changing his tune” when he talked about cutting expenses at the state level by, for example, implementing preventive health measures to cut down the cost of Medicaid, tackling the state’s pension obligations, and reducing unfunded liabilities to get better credit rates to lower the state’s debt payment.

Staneski said to Maroney, “When you were in the state legislature you actually voted to increase our tax on gas by 16%, you voted to raid more than $100 million in special transportation funds, you raided more than $130 million from other funds. You actually increased spending roughly 10% over the course of your two years there.”

Maroney countered, saying the GOP budget plan increased various “fees” that amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. “I agree that raising taxes at this time is not the answer.” However, he said, “If you’re going to call a fee a tax when I vote for a fee, then a fee is a tax when you vote for a fee.”

On tolls, Staneski said, “I am against tolls.” She said the state already gets money from the federal government for not having tolls and the state gets money from truckers who use the roads. She said the state simply has been spending money on bad projects, and raiding state transportation funds to pay for them.

Maroney said the state has to modernize its transportation system. He said asking if tolls are the answer is the wrong question: Rather the state should be asking what needs to be done to modernize transportation. And the next question, he said, is “how do we fund that?”

“Tolls have been mentioned as one answer, but right now I’m not convince that is the right answer. Someone would have to convince me that tolls are the right answer,” he said.

The two disagreed on mandating the teaching of climate change in public schools. Maroney said climate change and the environment are critical topics, especially in light of intensified storms, and backed mandating education on the issue.

Staneski said she voted against mandating that schools teach climate change because teachers and administrators said they couldn’t deal with any more mandates. Climate change can still be taught, she said: It just isn’t mandated.