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New Milford State Rep. race features two men with a focus on the environment

New Milford Republican state Representative Bill Buckbee, who is seeking a second term in office, is being challenged by Democrat Tom O’Brien.  O’Brien thinks Hartford is ignoring the needs of Western Connecticut, but sees tremendous potential for the ‘gateway to the Litchfield Hills’.  He’s been volunteering on quality of life, environment, historic preservation and transportation.  He’s also been working to revived a long a long-forgotten idea of creating a Greenway Trail along the Housatonic River called the New Milford River Trail.  O’Brien wants to stop the population departure because of the cost of living.

If elected to another term, Buckbee says he wants to protect children, seniors, veterans and those who can’t take care of themselves.  He says spending everywhere else needs to be on the table.  Buckbee says Connecticut doesn’t have a revenue problem, the state has a spending problem.

Buckbee notes that a priority remains bringing passenger rail service back to New Milford.  The last time there was trains coming in, was the year he was born.  He says it’s not an easy process, but progress is being made.  Buckbee wants to try to win federal funds to connect Danbury to New Milford and then eventually up through the Berkshires to Massachusetts.  Buckbee says bringing trains back would not only help employees of New Milford Hospital and other employers, but would also bring tourists to the region.  He says that could open up new talent pools.

O’Brien is in favor of restoring passenger rail service to New Milford.  But he says it’s a big cost to upgrade the tracks.  He was critical of the freight rail service in the area, which has seen a few derailments recently.  He favors multi-modal transportation.  O’Brien says there’s a wonderful quality of living, but a shortage of high paying jobs so many people travel long distances.  He’s been working locally on efforts to improve walking and biking, and is on the board of directors of Hart Transit.  He wants to connect people to rail service, by offering ways for people to reach the train station, without having to drive--one person one car and then parking.

Buckbee has talked with colleagues who either represent rural towns or those in the suburbs who don’t have to think about balancing farming, industry and historic issues.  He says New Milford is unique in that there are major employers, agriculture is a driving force and the look of downtown has been preserved.  O’Brien supports smart growth policy.  He doesn’t see agriculture as competing with industrial, but rather competing with housing developments.  He favors plans to encourage more dense downtown housing rather than sprawl.  O’Brien says having more people living downtown, would make downtowns more economically viable.

When it comes to tolling, Buckbee says he would only support tolls if everything else is reduced.  He says it’s tough for business to bring product across the state.  If toll legislation also including elimination of the gas tax and reduced other taxes he would consider it.  But Buckbee says they can’t hit people from all sides.  He was also critical of the legislation creating the transportation funding lockbox, saying it’s not something that can be controlled.  One toll plan publicized this Spring included 25 tolls between the New York line and New Haven, which he called ludicrous and a cash grab.

O’Brien says Connecticut needs to consider it.  Though he called it a regressive tax, he says tolling should be done in a way that gives a significant break to Connecticut residents.  Because the state raided the special transportation fund for so long, he believes some sort of change needs to be made. 

As for legalizing recreational marijuana, O'Brien favors it and says it could be a funding source.  Buckbee doesn’t want it to be a cash grab.  He’s not opposed to legalization as long as it’s done properly.  He’s talked with members of law enforcement, constituents and others to get their views on how to approach it responsibly.  Buckbee wants to look into the structures set up by Colorado, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Candlewood Lake is a resource for the entire region and O’Brien says it's not appreciated as much as it should be.  He notes that the milfoil problem is improving, but the algae problem is getting worse.  He says that’s due in part to runoff.  O’Brien would like to see more stringent regulations on phosphates and fertilizer.  Buckbee has been working to get more funding for Candlewood Lake water quality protection.  He says more needs to be done for Lillinonah, which has the same invasives problems but can’t stock sterile grass carp.

The education cost sharing formula remains something he would like to reform.  Last year, there were last-minute cuts that tied the hands of local officials.  Buckbee says a formula needs to be fair and equitable for every town across the state.  O’Brien talked about school funding from the standpoint of local property taxes.  He called the income tax the only progressive tax in the state.  He favors keeping the income tax and trying to reduce property taxes by helping municipalities.  O’Brien says the idea that in 2018 Connecticut is still funding education based on local property taxes, the quality of education based on zip code, is wrong.

Buckbee proposed a bill for business growth last year, and plans to reintroduce it again if elected.  It would give an incentive for any new full-time hires.  Any business who has a full time employee who’s there for at least one year, would receive 10-percent of that employee’s salary back in a tax credit.  Buckbee says that would help businesses big and small.  The legislation would have gone up to 12.5 percent if that employee was off the unemployment list or a veteran.  It failed to make it out of committee last year, but wants to try again.

O’Brien has mixed feelings on sports betting.  Since many people already bet on sports, O’Brien is in favor of legalizing sports betting.  But he says another casino would be a mistake.  He doesn’t want state revenue to depend too much on gambling because it’s a regressive tax.  While not morally against it, he doesn’t want to subsidize the budget through gambling.

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Todd Schnitt

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