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The League of Women Voters of Fairfield County hosted a debate on Sunday night between 4th District Congressman Jim Himes, the Democratic incumbent, and his Republican challenger John Shaban.  Shaban is a state Representative from Redding.  Himes is seeking a 5th term in office.  Himes repeatedly cited remarks made by Republican Donald Trump and the Republican majority in the House as being problematic.  Shaban fought back each time saying that in his opponent's first term there was a Democratic President and majority in both chambers.


The candidates were asked about specific action to update Social Security so that it is financially sound and beneficial for recipients.


Himes says solvency is one of the essential things, and something that the Presidential candidates haven't talked about.  He says if nothing is done, some 25 years from now, benefits will have to be scaled back so about 70-percent of what people are expecting.  Himes says now is the moment to deal with it by making relatively small adjustments.  He would raise the cap on which income is no longer subject to payroll withholding tax.  He would support measures that would have the wealthiest Americans pay an increased tax rate on Social Security earnings or scale back their Social Security benefits.  He said he wants to be careful when talking about the retirement age, but would raise it when in combination with a progressive change in contributions.  Himes opposes privatization of Social Security.


Shaban says means testing makes sense on the receiving end or the cap end.  He called it a math problem, not a political problem.  He says changes for people who are getting ready to retire in the next 10 or 15 years would not happen.  But he would like to see a discussion about raising the retirement age, linked with a scaled pay out system.  He says the rate of benefit could change depending on how early a recipient takes pay outs.  Shaban opposes privatization of Social Security because that flies in the face of why the system was set up in the first place.


Several questions about immigration were posed.  One was about how to balance reforms to the system with needs of constituents.


Shaban says people who are here are constituents, part of the fabric of the community and citizens.  He says almost everyone comes from a family of immigrants.  He called immigration a political football that's been kicked around for some 25 years.  Shaban would like to take what he called a "stand up and stand out" approach.  He wants to make it easier and more efficient for people who have come to this country legally to gain citizenship, noting that it shouldn't take a decade to get through the process.  He says the millions of people here illegally will not be deported en mass, that's not the first step.  He says there may be a small fine, but those residents should then go to the back of the line and go through the citizenship process.  If people here illegally don't pay their taxes or commit a crime, then Shaban says they should be deported.


Himes says one of the first things that has to happen is a change in the way people talk about immigrants.  He says building a wall is not a constructive policy.  Himes also said there shouldn't be a religious test to keep Muslims out of the country.  He says he would have voted in favor of a bill approved by the U.S. Senate, but never came up fro a vote in the House.  The bill would have done three things including provide more money for border security.  But he says a majority of the undocumented aliens didn't cross the border, they overstayed their visas.  Himes says as long as employers continue to pay the undocumented, they will come.  The bill would have provided technology and systems that would allow employers to know if employees were entitled to work, and penalties for those who break the law.  The bill would have also included an earned path to citizenship. 


Himes says "The Dreamers", children who were brought to this country by their parents and know no other home, should be taken care of.  He says his opponent was wrong to oppose a bill in the General Assembly giving in-state tuition rates to children living in Connecticut who were brought to this country illegally by their parents.


Shaban says the blame can't be placed on the Republican majority, because Himes had a Democratic majority during his first term.  He says it's against federal law to provide different benefits to a federally funded institution.  Shaban says the state Attorney General agreed.  He called for an expedited path for The Dreamers to gain citizenship.


Climate change was also addressed.


Himes says climate change is real and human caused.  He says scientific consensus is behind that belief.  Himes says the bizarre weather is proof of climate change.  He called it a profound problem that's been too long in addressing because so many people have denied it exists.  He says increased standards for automobiles has helped reduce the effects of climate change.  He also touted a bill he helped get passed which would increase home and office efficiencies.  Savings would be shared with properties that increased their energy savings.  He says battery technology was improved for cars, which has started to bend the curve.  Himes wants to reduce carbon-based energy sources and nuclear energy and move toward renewable energies.


Shaban is an environmental lawyer and sits on the Environment Committee in Hartford.  He says it doesn't matter if climate change is man-made or not, it's happening and needs to be addressed.  Shaban says carbon in the atmosphere is a problem and needs to be addressed.  He says there are things that can be done to move toward to renewable energy.  Shaban says a carbon tax doesn't really work because carbon is being emitted by everything that burns and everything that breathes.  He called for long term production tax credits.  Shaban says companies don't know if tax credits will stay in place so they're not sure if they'll be able to invest.  He noted that the General Assembly passed the Long Island Blue Plan to protect the shoreline and figure out what's changing in the water of Long Island Sound.


The candidates were asked if they support gun control legislation, and if so, what type of restrictions.


Shaban says he's already supported gun control legislation.  Shaban worked on the 2013 gun bill approved by the General Assembly.  He says what makes a device dangerous is the person holding the device, but he does believe some controls are needed.  He touted legislation for better background checks, safe storage and better security at schools.  Shaban also touted better mental health screenings.  But he says if the laws can't be funded, they won't do anyone any good.  He says people lose focus of what needs to be done to deter a majority of gun violence, stemming the illegal flow of guns across the state lines.  Shaban called the walk out by Himes on a 'moment of silence' an inappropriate reaction.  He says Himes should have instead pitched a bill.  Shaban says if he is elected he would push for a bill to stop the illegal trafficking of guns across state lines.


Himes agreed with Shaban that nothing is getting done in Congress, and there will be more 'moments of silence' as a response to non-stop violence.  He says now is not the time to stop talking.  Himes said he made the 'symbolic gesture' to protest an abdication of duty.  He says those so-called stunts didn't accomplish a lot, but if enough of them occur, eventually the chambers will act.  He says the walk out, sit in and filibuster mattered.  If reelected, Himes says he will continue to sponsor every bill he can that will end gun violence and continue to raise symbolic hell.  He says the majority of gun violence is not illegally trafficked guns citing suicide, San Bernardino, Orlando and Columbine. 


Himes did commend Shaban for voting for the Connecticut gun safety bill.  He said it was a courageous vote for a Republican.  Shaban says they’re saying the same thing, but there’s a difference between talk and action.  He said it wasn’t a tough for him as a Republican, it was a tough vote for him because a lot of kids got killed and he had to look at their parents each day when they came to Hartford.  Shaban says if the bill was just about device restrictions, they missed the point.  He noted that it was also about mental health, school security and funding.  He called it groundbreaking legislation, which is almost meaningless because of a lack of funds.


The next question was about the Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United.  The ruling holds that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.


Himes says he opposes the ruling and would like to see it reversed.  He says money is not the same as speech.  He called for similar controls to the Connecticut public campaign financing system.


Shaban says there is still room under the decision to make things more transparent.  He says it takes a long time to reverse a case and would prefer to see a campaign financing system.  He also called for term limits.  Shaban says there’s nothing illegal about large campaign war chests, but the optics are funny. 


The Affordable Care Act was the next topic.


Shaban says it has to be repaired and then replaced.  He says repeal and replace doesn’t work because that leaves a coverage gap.  He says some people have arguably benefited from it, but vastly more people have been hurt by ACA.  Shaban says the premise of the ACA didn’t pan out.  He says there needs to be interstate commerce, plan clarity and torte reform.  He says there has to be an Exchange, but coupled with a competitive interstate marketplace.  Shaban cited studies finding the cost as $1.2 trillion to implement the ACA and insure 20 million people, but if the Medicaid limits had only been increased it would have cost $116 billion.  Shaban says a top-down, one-sized fits all federal government doesn’t work.


Himes says it’s profoundly wrong to say that more people have been hurt than helped by the Affordable Care Act.  Himes says the uninsured rate is down and millions of people have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act.  He says there is no perfect legislation, and noted that there are problems in the small business and individual market.  Himes says the donut hole for Medicare beneficiaries is gone because of the Affordable Care Act.  He wants to keep the good parts and look for ways to draw more healthy people into the market.  Himes says some 30 states haven’t expanded Medicaid as they were invited to do under the ACA.


A question from the audience was about what the one thing that Congress needs to tackle.  Himes says too few Americans are feeling the benefit of economic recovery.  He’d like to see an investment in national infrastructure to help people more productive.  Himes says he’s tried to bring in federal resources to create construction jobs, but he’d like to get ahead of some problems like the Walk Bridge failure.  He says rebuilding highways, railroads and laying fiber optic cable, the government is helping to put people back to work.  Himes says when the economy tanked in 2008, government missed an opportunity to put people to work and bring the nation’s infrastructure into the 21st century.


Shaban says the question is who would manage the resources to do that.  He says the biggest challenge is how to keep the federal government as small as possible.  Shaban says he has more trust in Redding’s Democratic First Selectman to manage resources than all the Republicans in Congress.  He notes that right now Connecticut residents send dollars to Washington, DC and only get pennies back.  He added that the money comes back with strings attached.  He says things are managed better from the ground up with a limited government.  Shaban says model of the FAST Act is a classic example.  He was critical of the Hartford-New Britain busway, which was built with federal money.  He says the $600 million project was a waste and a failure because there are no jobs in either city.  He says it would have been less of a waste to build the same busway between Stamford and Bridgeport.  Shaban says Congressman Larson was in Hartford lobbying to get the busway pushed through, but if he had been in Congress he would have been fighting to get the busway in Fairfield County.  He called the 4th District a cash machine for the state and for the country.  Shaban also said the federal Department of Education should be phased out and the money returned to the states. 


Himes countered that it’s easy to criticize how politicians spend money.  He also said it’s not true that Connecticut only gets pennies back on the dollar.  He says people don’t like politicians because they play fast and loose with the facts.  Himes says a lot of the federal money that gets sent back is for Medicaid and food stamps for people.  He says getting more of that back would not bode well for the state’s wellbeing. 


A question was posed about hacking and cyber security.  Shaban says intellectual property laws need to be beefed up.  Himes says everything will be networked soon and he’s been pushing for an international agreement like the Geneva Accords, which he’s dubbed E-neva Accords.  He says there needs to be agreement on the rules of cyber warfare, which includes agreeing not to attack critical infrastructure anymore than it is permissible to bomb a hospital.  He says an agreement to go after the rogue hackers needs to be reached.  Himes has a new cell phone, because his old cell number got posted during the DNC hack.  He called cyber security a huge economic and job opportunity.

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Todd Schnitt
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