Gubernatorial contenders Ned Lamont and Oz Griebel took advantage of Bob Stefanowski’s absence at their first debate Wednesday to criticize their rival’s controversial pledge to phase out the state income tax.
Both Lamont, a Democrat, and Griebel, a petitioning candidate, told the crowd of more than 200 at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford that they believe they could provide some income tax relief. But the top priority has to be closing big projected deficits in state finances, and stabilizing surging retirement benefit costs projected to remain a problem through the early 2030s.
“Elimination of the income tax would be devastating for our schools, … devastating for our towns and cities,” Lamont said pledging to produce “an honestly balanced budget,” then adding, “I’m going to do everything I can to hold the line on taxes.”
Griebel said he hopes to eliminate the estate tax and gradually reduce Connecticut’s income tax back to the flat 4.5 percent rate charged when it was enacted in 1991. Currently, most income is taxed between 5 and 5.5 percent, with 6.99 percent being the top rate applied.
With a focus on stabilizing the state budget and creating new jobs, Griebel added, “the goal would be to have more people paying (income) taxes and drive the rate down.”
The two candidates were more direct in their critique of Stefanowski when they talked with reporters after the debate.
Griebel said that refuting Stefanowski’s pledge to phase out the income tax over eight years is not difficult.
The income tax supports 51 percent of the state budget’s General Fund, and no other single tax or revenue source raises enough money to even cover the state’s retirement benefit and debt obligations.
“I personally think it’s an easy one to hit out of the park,” Griebel said, calling Stefanowski’s pledge “poll-tested, red-meat stuff” designed to fool voters. “I think people understand that.”
“Where is Bob?” Lamont quipped. “If Bob’s ready to lead he should have been here.”
The Stefanowski campaign said the Wednesday after Labor Day was too early for a debate, but Stefanowski is willing to debate four other times, beginning Sept. 12 in a New London at a forum to be televised by WTNH, Channel 8.
Stefanowski issued a statement Wednesday evening.