Election 2016: Hwang and Dwyer discuss jobs, education funding

Tony Hwang and Phil Dwyer attended an editorial board hosted by The Weston Forum and Easton Courier. — Nancy Doniger photo

Tony Hwang and Phil Dwyer attended an editorial board hosted by The Weston Forum and Easton Courier. — Nancy Doniger photo

State Sen. Tony Hwang and Phil Dwyer, candidates for the 28th state Senate District, participated in an editorial candidates forum on Oct. 7 in the Ridgefield office of HAN Network, parent company of The Weston Forum, The Easton Courier and The Fairfield Sun.

The 28th District includes Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, and parts of Weston and Westport.

Both Hwang and Dwyer are from Fairfield. Hwang, a Republican, is seeking his second term in office. He previously served in the Connecticut House of Representatives, representing District 134 from 2009 to 2015.

Dwyer, the Democratic challenger, is chairman of the Fairfield Board of Education. He retired in 2010 as president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Coast YMCA.

At the editorial board, the candidates were asked five questions and gave three-minute answers. They had the opportunity to rebut their opponent in one minute or less.

Following are the questions and highlights of Hwang and Dwyer’s answers.

Question One: Easton and Weston are DRG A towns with students who are among the highest performing on assessment tests in the state. What will you do to preserve the top education delivered to students in the 28th District in light of Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s decision that the state is defaulting on its constitutional duty to give all children an adequate education?

Hwang: “I thought it was patently unfair that West Hartford, which is in a similar DRG to Weston, Easton and Fairfield, got $1 million-plus in the latest budget round but Weston, Easton and Fairfield were virtually cut to zero (but then were restored some of the funding). … When you zero out an educational reimbursement program, it just shows you didn’t even try.”

Hwang said the state needs to make sure every child has an opportunity for educational success, and create a “value” to education. He supports vocational technical schools and education initiatives by community colleges. He said mandates the state forces on towns should be eliminated.

Dwyer:  “The judge’s decision was correct in that that we have a broken system. … However, the concept that every child in Connecticut deserves a free and appropriate public education but some towns don’t need any help from the state is just fundamentally a wrong statement.”

As a school board member in Fairfield, Dwyer said, he has had to address tight budgets while maintaining programs and services in the schools. His board achieved that by finding efficiencies in transportation expenses, paraprofessional costs and energy conservation.

He said the legislature has not stuck to the original ECS (educational cost sharing) formula and has tinkered with it. He recommends that when the legislature passes something, it’s put in “a lockbox” and not changed.

Question Two: How will you keep taxes down while protecting the environment, infrastructure and public safety, without denying vital services to children and disabled and elderly people?

Dwyer: “States and towns are best defined by how they take care of those citizens most in need.”

He said the state needs to look at efficiencies. It has taken on too much debt, and principal and interest payments are crowding out operating expenses. He said the state has to set a policy to reduce debt to a certain level and stick to it. If a program is not working, he said, the state needs to make tough calls and eliminate it.

Hwang: “Government has a role in infrastructure … and a responsibility to care for those most vulnerable at risk … but we can’t do that if we cannot sustain our economic infrastructure. It’s not that we don’t tax enough, it’s that we spend too much.”

He would look to create efficiencies through privatization of some state services to reduce government and maximize tax dollars. He said a study showed that nonprofits can provide the same quality of services at far less cost than the state.

Dwyer: “I am not enamored of privatization of government services.”

He said he has served in the nonprofit industry for years and referred to an instance in Florida when the YMCA took over the state’s foster care system. He said the Y did not have the capacity to consistently deliver quality services up and down the state. He believes there is a role for nonprofits to support the state but not take over a fundamental government responsibility.

Hwang: “I disagree. … There are certain selective services we can do and are doing now.”  

Question Three: Do you support an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10? Do you think the increase will affect Connecticut’s ability to attract and retain businesses?

Hwang: “I do not support raising the minimum wage at the present time. While raising the wage    sounds good on a lofty level, the practical realities are fraught with unintended consequences.”

He said upping the minimum wage puts Connecticut businesses at a disadvantage, and forces them to move. He said if there was a “national minimum wage” it would be different, and would be worth considering because there would be an increase across the board.

What he would like to see is creation of a more sustainable work environment by increasing job prospects through education and skills acquisition. “We need to raise the level of people’s abilities to pursue opportunities of success and economic independence,” he said.

Dwyer: “I support the minimum wage. The Democratic platform that says it should get to $15 an hour is a correct policy. Minimum wage is probably the one economic policy that ‘lifts the boats’ of those most in need who work at the lowest levels of our workforce.”

Through his work with the YMCA, he said, he has spent a lifetime hiring youth and adult workers who have been paid minimum wage. When the wage goes up, he said, the salary scale goes up as well. He said a minimum wage increase does not mean staff reductions. “You adjust your business to meet increased costs,” he said.

He said the state should not be arguing about minimum wage and should be creating good paying jobs in which citizens can earn good wages.

Hwang: In rebuttal, Hwang said the state is far bigger than the YMCA, and there are a multitude of businesses where “one size does not fit all.” He said the state needs to provide people with more educational opportunities. “When you have the skills set, there are manufacturers that will hire.”

Dwyer: In rebuttal, Dwyer said there was a national labor study that said minimum wage has not impacted job loss. Further, he said, if there was a “federal minimum wage,” Connecticut workers would lose, because the state has high costs compared with other parts of the country. “We need a state wage structure that fits our high cost structure,” he said.

Question Four: To help the state’s budget deficit, Gov. Malloy announced in April he would eliminate 2,500 state jobs. To date, there have been 825 executive layoffs and 239 layoffs by the judicial branch — about half the projected layoffs. Do you support this course of action to help with the budget deficit? Do you think there are too many state employees?

Dwyer: “I agree there are too many state employees.”

He said he has done turnaround management and had to adjust budgets with employee reductions. “But,” he said, “if that is the only tool you employ you are just going to cut yourself eventually into extinction. You have to grow out of a financial problem. You do it to get control of your budget.”

He said employee cuts need to be judicious. In this past budget, the governor cut a lot of legal positions, but, he said, “if you get sued and need to defend yourself you need those positions.”

He said it’s important that cutting certain services doesn’t mean “phantom” cuts. “You have to make sure the cuts are real. This budget had a lot of phantom numbers.”

Hwang: “I agree that the budget that was passed was like the Titanic — as soon as it was passed it started leaking. It was indeed full of ’phantom’ revenues and spending.”

He said job losses impact employees, their families, and their social and mental well-being. He made a proposal that instead of cutting jobs, employees be allowed to take leave, take less vacation, or take 5% less in salary, but that never came up during the budget discussion. There were other solutions that were offered, he said.

But, he said, the legislature refused to do things due to institutional inertia. “At the end of the day it was one-party rule, and it was a ‘phantom’ budget. Let’s be transparent.”

Dwyer in rebuttal: “The Republican proposed budget had holes in it as well.”

He said the problem in Hartford is that Democrats are in one corner and Republicans are in the other. They both suggested “phantom” revenue cuts. He said when Hwang had an opportunity to save Fairfield money (with the Partnership 2.0 health care insurance plan) he voted against it. Dwyer said that plan saved the district $3.5 million. “That’s how you save jobs and make government less expensive,” he said.  

Hwang in rebuttal: “Unfortunately, the health care exchange has been collapsing under the weight of its inefficiencies.”

He said the reason he did not support the Partnership 2.0 plan was because the risk taker and self-insurer is the state of Connecticut. The ultimate burden, he said, goes back to the taxpayers of the state.

Question Five: What are the top three issues the state is facing and why are you the better candidate to solve them?

Hwang: Hwang said the top issues are the state’s taxing and spending philosophy, jobs, and social responsibility.

He said it’s critical that the state create a transparent and sustainable taxing and spending process so municipalities can plan accordingly. “Every dollar we get in Hartford is the people’s money, and we have to treat it with tremendous respect and accountability, and also govern with social responsibility,” he said.

He said he has been responsive to people in his district and hearing their needs, and that he is bipartisan and works cooperatively with Democrats. “The way to achieve these things is simple: Let’s really be transparent and let’s truly work together.”

Dwyer: “The fundamental question is, Where is Connecticut going?”

He said that at the base of everything is job creation. “That, to me, is job one of the legislature. Not only does job creation boost the economy, but when a husband or a wife has a well-paying job, it gives the family strength,” he said.

The second issue is schools. He said the legislature should determine now the best ways to fund education across the state so school districts aren’t told there will be cuts after they pass their budgets.

His third priority is a good transportation system. Both he and Hwang objected to the proposed fare increase for Metro-North.

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