September 18, 2018

A night of zingers courtesy of Stefanowski and Lamont

The Republican and Democratic candidates for governor pummeled each other in their second televised debate Monday, offering practiced one-liners that energized a Shubert Theater audience dominated by Realtors, while giving voters little new information on how either would close a projected deficit of $2.1 billion awaiting the next governor.

Republican Bob Stefanowski is new to politics, but he proved again on the Shubert stage he has mastered the skill of message discipline. As he did during the GOP primary, Stefanowski ignored gibes that his promised income-tax repeal is laughable, hammering two themes: He will slash taxes, and Democrat Ned Lamont is a fresh version of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

"It's only the second debate, but the choice in this election is becoming crystal clear," said Stefanowski, a 56-year-old former corporate executive. "Ned Lamont will deliver Connecticut a third term of Dan Malloy. He's going to raise taxes. He's going to put up tolls. He's going to make bigger government and spend more."

Lamont, 64, the founder of a small cable-television company who ran for U.S. Senate in 2006 and governor in 2010, saw the line coming.

"There you go again, Bob," Lamont said, borrowing a dismissive put-down from an unlikely source, Ronald Reagan. "You're kind of fantasizing that you're running against Dan Malloy. Well, you're running against Ned Lamont. And, actually, I'm the guy who ran against Dan Malloy eight years ago. Where were you?"

Lamont pledged not to raise income taxes and pushed his plan to restore property-tax credits that would help the middle class. His property-tax cut is far more modest than Stefanowski's pledge to eliminate the income tax over eight years, costing the state half its revenue. But neither man has put forward a balanced plan for Connecticut over the long or short terms.

Few close observers of Connecticut's finances see tax cuts in the immediate future.

Stefanowski made news after the debate, indicating he would not be following the custom of releasing his tax returns. Instead, Stefanowski said, he would be preparing a summary of the taxes he's paid. Lamont, who released his taxes when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, has promised to provide his recent returns if Stefanowski releases his.

Connecticut has a long history of candidates releasing their taxes, including wealthy self-funders such as Linda McMahon, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012, and Lamont, when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006. Malloy and his Republican two-time Republican opponent , Tom Foley, released their taxes.

Republicans are curious about Stefanowski's wealth. He largely self-funded his primary campaign, and the GOP is wondering what he can afford for the general election. He left his last corporate post as chief executive officer of DFC Global, a payday lender in Europe, the U.K. and U.S., in 2017.

Lamont was sharper Monday than he has been previously in distancing himself from Malloy, who easily defeated Lamont in a Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2010, then won two terms against Foley. Polling indicates that Malloy will leave office in January as one of the least popular governors in the U.S.

In response to a question about the state's role in helping homeowners plagued by crumbling concrete foundations, the result of aggregate contaminated with a mineral that expands when exposed to groundwater, Lamont kicked hard at the Democratic incumbent for failing to lead on the issue.

"I think Dan Malloy was derelict on this front," Lamont said.

Both candidates said insurers and lenders, who thus far have declined to play a substantial role in crafting a relief plan to cope with damages expected to exceed a billion dollars, must be forced to the table. Exactly how they would do that was unclear.

But the campaign seems likely to turn on the credibility of the two candidates and their approach to budgets and economics. And the two candidates repeatedly returned to those issues, regardless of the questions before them.

Stefanowski has gone all in on supply-side economics, making a bet on its appeal at a press conference in December with Arthur Laffer, the economist who preaches tax cuts as the first and last remedy to a slow economy. It's a bet he's let ride through debates with his GOP rivals and, now, with Lamont.

"It is time for a change. I'll cut taxes," Stefanowski said. "I'll make government smaller and more efficient. I'll bring people, jobs and and opportunity back to the state of Connecticut, which will raise home prices and bring prosperity back to our state that we once had."

The home-prices line was a winner: The event was sponsored by the CT Realtors.

"I heard the exact same rhetoric from Kansas five years ago," Lamont said. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback followed Laffer's recipe, slashing taxes in hopes of promoting economic growth. "Five years later, let me tell you," Lamont said, "they sent the governor out on a rail."

Lamont likened Stefanowski to President Donald Trump, who also took advice from Laffer. Congress accepted Trump's calls for tax cuts that have not been offset by reductions in federal spending. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that the cuts could add a trillion dollars to the federal deficit over the next 10 years.

"Bob loves Donald Trump, and Donald Trump tax cuts," Lamont said. "The Republicans used to be the party of fiscal conservatism. I don't know what's happened."

But Stefanowski was ready with a punch line that played off a petitioning candidate who was not invited, Oz Griebel.

"Could you pick a more different state from Connecticut than Kansas?" Stefanowski said, prompting titters and applause from the friendly audience. "Oz isn't even on the stage tonight, and we're talking about the Wizard of Oz."

It played well at the Shubert.

Lamont protested on stage, and then again in at the post-debate news conference, that Stefanowski's insistence he could repeal the income tax would be the single most-destabilizing approach to Connecticut's finances and economy.

Unlike the federal government, Connecticut cannot engage in deficit spending. More than anything, Lamont said, the business community craves stability, not blowing up the state's approach to budgeting with a supply-side experiment that would cost the state half its revenue.

Lamont complained after the debate he still has no idea how Stefanowski would make up the lost of $10 billion produced by the income tax

"I'm not sure he has any idea," Lamont said. "That's what makes this so scary."

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