Stratford Star/Valley Gazette - School funding, taxes are issues, Mooney challenges Harkins for state 120th District seat
By: Fred Musante
The candidates for the 120th District state house seat sharply disagreed over education funding and how to lower property taxes, during an informal debate this week before the Hometown Publications Editorial Board.
Republican incumbent State Rep. John Harkins is running for a sixth term against Democrat David Mooney.
The district stretches from Short Beach north between Main Street and the Housatonic River, but above Barnum Avenue it spans west across to the Bridgeport line, not including the part of town north of the Merritt Parkway or the Putney neighborhood.
Given their party affiliations, their differing opinions on education funding and property tax relief were as predictable as they were sharply drawn.
For example, Harkins opposed shifting more of the responsibility for education funding from the town to the state while Mooney was in favor of it.
Mooney said property taxes should be reduced by increasing state aid to towns, while Harkins said property taxes should be reduced by cutting state taxes and attracting new business growth.
Hometown senior editors Lorraine Bukowski and Nancy Doniger and Stratford Star editor Fred Musante asked the candidate four issues-related questions on transportation, education funding, health care insurance and property tax relief, and a general question on why they think they appeal to the voters.
Harkins pointed out his success bringing state funding to Stratford for a sewer plant upgrade, a railroad station parking lot and other improvements. He also took credit for the state turn-over of the Shakespeare Theater to the town in early 2005.
Mooney believes his profession gives him an advantage that will appeal to voters. "I'm an engineer, so I'm a professional problem-solver," Mooney said.
He said he has the moderate views and skills the district's constituents need in a representative.
Mooney, 29, is a software engineer for Fuji Films in Stamford. He is married, has a computer science degree from the University of Connecticut, and is a member of Stratford's Economic and Community Development Commission.
Harkins, 43, is a real estate appraiser and owner of Harkins Appraisal Service on Main Street. He is married with two children, has a finance degree from the University of Tulsa, and served one term on the Town Council in the 1990s. He is the ranking member of the legislature's Transportation Committee, and also a member of the Insurance and Real Estate and Banking committees.
Mooney identified rising property taxes and school funding as priority issues in the campaign. Budget pressures have caused cuts in town services and the school budget and also forced the Town Council to make what he believes were bad decisions, like under-funding the town employees' pension fund and spending the budget fund balance.
"It says a lot about the town, what's happening with taxes and the school system," Mooney said, and he thinks the town needs a new approach to these problems.
Mooney also said transportation is "a huge issue" for him, since he sometimes has to spend two hours traveling 26 miles to work. He proposes modernizing the rail system, including services commuters use to get from train stations to their homes and jobs, and also redesigning Route 1 so it could serve as another route for shorter commutes.
Harkins said taxes, the economy, education, and the state's slow growth rate are his priorities. Connecticut is growing so much slower than other states that it may eventually lose another Congressional seat, he said. The stated used to have six Congressional districts, but it dropped to five in 2002 after the last census.
The incumbent said he also wants to eliminate the state income tax on senior citizen pensions, add new rail cars and make other improvements to the train system.
Mooney's and Harkins's disagreement about property taxes focused on the question of local versus state funding.
While Harkins said high state taxes drove businesses away, Mooney blamed high town taxes.
Connecticut has one of the lowest top-level state income tax rates in the nation, said Mooney, who thinks the legislature should reconsider raising the rate for those with the highest incomes.
He wants to shift responsibility to Hartford to lower local property taxes. "I see that the solution has to come primarily from the state," he said.
In contrast, Harkins said, "Property tax is clearly a local issue, not a state issue." He believes increasing the town's grand list through business growth is a better way to solve the problem rather than increasing state aid.
However, he said he would make sure the state increases aid for special education.
Harkins and Mooney both favor eliminating the cap on the state Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant. That cap has cost Stratford about $50 million in lost education aid since the mid-1990s.
Both candidates said the ECS grant formula is flawed. However, they differed on how to reform the education funding program. Mooney said the state should move away from funding schools primarily with local property taxes, a system he said began when the state had an agrarian economy and is now obsolete. School funding should come from the state income tax instead, he said.
Harkins said he doesn't favor "redistributing income," which is how he characterized Mooney's view. He favors giving money back to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts.
Harkins said cutting taxes would attract business growth and raise tax revenues without adding to the money residents have to pay.
He also said he supports Gov. M. Jodi Rell's task force on school funding, which is expected to make recommendations next year.
Another issue the state legislature is likely to debate next year is access to health care insurance, because at least 100,000 Connecticut residents are uninsured.
Harkins criticized the legislature's Democrats for imposing mandated coverage, which he said raised the cost of insurance and made it unaffordable.
"Health care is a major issue in order to attract businesses," he added.
He advised watching Massachusetts, which is establishing universal statewide insurance coverage, to determine the strengths and weaknesses of such a program. Additionally, he said he would favor "mandate free" health insurance for young people and increased competition among providers as ways of lowering premiums.
Mooney said he thinks the current system favors people with good jobs, but it leaves many other people behind. He also agreed with Harkins about watching what happens in Massachusetts.
"The states are the laboratories" where new ideas will be tried out, he said.
He disagreed with Harkins on the insurance mandates, however. One mandated benefit was for mammograms, which Mooney said is a good idea.