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Comptroller candidates disagree on direction of Connecticut’s finances

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Sean Pavone Photography
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The Connecticut State Capitol

Sean Scanlon and Mary Fay bring very different backgrounds to their battle to become Connecticut’s next chief fiscal guardian.

Scanlon, the Democratic nominee for state comptroller, has spent eight years in the state House of Representatives, leading committees with jurisdiction over complex tax, bonding and insurance issues.

Fay, a West Hartford Republican, touts three decades of private-sector experience in the financial services sector as her chief asset. And while she’s in her third term on her community’s town council, she says the comptroller serves taxpayers the best when divorced from partisan politics.

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Mary Fay
Mary Fay, Republican candidate for state comptroller

“They want a watchdog,” Fay, 61, told the CT Mirror last week. “They want somebody who knows the numbers, not some political hack.”

But Scanlon, 35, said his legislative work has focused heavily on state finances and the employee health care and retirement benefit programs that the comptroller administers.

“I have an incredible understanding of the two most important functions that the office has and know how to get things done on behalf of people,” said Scanlon, who also is executive director of Tweed-New Haven Airport. “When you combine that with my experience running one of the two commercial airports in Connecticut, I think that I’m certainly ready to take on this job on day one.”

Fay, who retired in 2016 as senior vice president of health care for American International Group in New York and also was an executive running retirement benefit programs at GE Capital, said she doesn’t look at the state comptroller as a political post.

“It’s a purely empirical, data-driven job,” she said. “I am there to count the pennies coming in and count the pennies coming out. … I report to the people.”

Are state finances getting in better shape?

And counting the pennies is crucial, Fay added, because when the political rhetoric has been peeled back, the numbers show state government finances are in trouble.

Connecticut has more than $90 billion in unfunded obligations, making it one of the most indebted states, per capita, in the nation. That tally includes not only bonded debt but also unfunded pension and retirement health care program liabilities.

“We’re in worse fiscal shape than they are telling us,” Fay added.

But Scanlon sees things differently.

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Thomas Breen
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Sean Scanlon, the Democratic candidate for state comptroller.

When it comes to the unfunded retirement benefit obligations that account for two-thirds of Connecticut’s debt, that stems chiefly from seven decades of poor savings decisions by governors and legislatures between 1939 and 2010.

But since 2018, state government has amassed a record-setting $3.3 billion budget reserve and made nearly $6 billion in supplemental pension payments — on top of the $2.9 billion it’s required to contribute annually to those funds.

“We did something historic — Democrats and Republicans — that has positioned us to be in the best fiscal position in this state in decades,” he added. “Anyone who denies that we’ve made fiscal progress clearly doesn’t understand how far we’ve come.”

Fay agrees that the rainy day fund has grown and doesn’t dispute that extra pension contributions happened. But she said many taxpayers aren’t aware of the fine print on this deal.

Between 2017 and 2020, the legislature — working first with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and then, in 2019, with Lamont — re-financed state pension programs three times.

Analysts had warned that because of the decades of neglect that pension funds had sustained, required annual contributions could quadruple between 2015 and 2030, forcing unprecedented tax hikes.

State officials restructured payments to smooth out those spikes, shifting billions of dollars in debt, plus interest, onto taxpayers in the late 2030s and 2040s.

But they didn’t just lower required contributions for the spike years that are still to come. They also restructured payments in the near-term, making their own budgets easier to manage — while shifting even more burdens onto future taxpayers.

“The liabilities are killing” state finances, Fay said, adding that most taxpayers don’t know more refinancing was done than was necessary.

Scanlon touts his record on tax relief

Scanlon said he doesn’t favor any more pension refinancing, adding that while state government was stabilizing its budget, he was fighting to help Connecticut households balance their own books.

The Guilford lawmaker has battled for the past two years to create a new state income tax credit to help low- and middle-income families with children.

Lamont blocked efforts for a full child tax credit now, questioning whether Connecticut could afford it with the global economy sliding toward a possible recession.

But Scanlon was able to win approval of a one-time, $250-per-child state income tax rebate program, which sent more than $82 million to Connecticut families this summer.

“While the process was far from ideal, the fact that many people signed up for it demonstrates the overwhelming need,” he said.

This was part of a larger, $660 million tax relief program that also included:

  • A nine-month suspension, through Nov. 30, of the 25-cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax; 
  • An expanded state income tax credit to help households cover their municipal property taxes;
  • A statewide freeze on local car taxes at 32.46 mills;
  • And a one-time distribution of federal pandemic relief to working poor households. This involves an average payment of about $170, sent out last week, to families that earned less than $57,414 last year.

Scanlon added he would use the bully pulpit as comptroller to continue lobbying for a permanent child tax credit and more state income tax relief for low- and middle-income households.

Candidates agree on transparency issues

Both candidates say government needs to do more to help families struggling with the cost of living in Connecticut. Scanlon and his wife, Meghan, have two children. Fay and her spouse, Mary Smith, have one child.

And that’s not the only common ground Scanlon and Fay bring to the campaign.

Both are seeking their first term as comptroller.

Guilford Democrat Kevin P. Lembo held the post from 2011 until last December, when he resigned due to a heart illness. Gov. Ned Lamont tapped Natalie Braswell, a former assistant comptroller and chief of legal planning at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, to complete Lembo’s final year on the job, but she opted not to run for a full term as comptroller.

Lembo “blazed a historic trail in terms of transparency,” Scanlon said.

Lembo launched the state’s searchable online database on spending and revenues, a network that also includes public-sector salaries, pensions and contractual information. And Lembo also bumped heads with Malloy to mandate independent analyses of the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic incentives Connecticut provides annually to businesses.

Fay said she would maintain Lembo’s online Open CT portal and expand it to highlight all no-bid contracts approved by the Executive Branch and quasi-public agencies.

The two candidates also endorsed the consensus revenue process established by the legislature in 2009. This requires nonpartisan analysts and the governor’s budget staff to jointly assess the health of tax receipts and other state revenues three times per year.

If they fail to reach consensus in their report — a prospect that has never happened yet in the 13-year-history of the program — the comptroller must settle any disputes.

But when it comes to health care, the differences between Fay and Scanlon become clear again.

Fay said CT can’t afford to offer retirement health care to state employees

The comptroller also is a major purchaser of health care products and services, administering the employee health care program.

Fay questioned whether the state should continue to offer retirement health care to future hires, acknowledging that any change to this benefit would need to be approved by the legislature and negotiated between the governor and state employee unions.

Scanlon supported a 2017 union concessions package that increased health care costs for state workers but never has sought to eliminate the retirement health care benefit.

As a legislator, Scanlon also sided repeatedly with Lembo on a public option health plan. The comptroller would use the state’s purchasing power to negotiate an insurance policy for small businesses, nonprofits and others in the private sector.

Since 2018, proposals have bogged down under heavy opposition from the insurance lobby.

Scanlon said he believes the proposal needs to be reassessed but he still hopes some plan, likely with modifications, can be adopted.

“Something like the public option,” he said, “is a really, really important thing that could drive down costs for people that are getting killed by the high cost of health care.”

But Fay said that while she understands the principle of using the state’s purchasing leverage to negotiate affordable coverage for the private sector, government doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to administering health care.

“I’m not sure that’s the comptroller’s job,” she said.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.