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Conley and Gauthier differ on police bill and marijuana, find other common ground in debate

In a virtual debate Monday evening, 40th House District candidates state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and Republican challenger Lauren Gauthier differed on the police accountability bill, tolls and marijuana legalization but found some common ground on policy and spending around elections, tourism, telehealth and the Connecticut Bottle Bill.

The League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut co-sponsored the debate, which was livestreamed on Facebook and can still be viewed on the chamber's Facebook page.

"I have been, as your representative, a champion of health care rights, and a champion of education, getting funds from Hartford to both Groton and Ledyard," said Conley, who said she's seeking election to a third two-year term because "there is still more work to do."

Twice in the debate, Conley pointed to delivering $147 million in state funding for school construction projects in Groton and Ledyard, $500,000 in Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund grants to Ledyard, and an additional $477,000 in Alliance District funding to Groton.

Gauthier said in her opening statement, "As a millennial trying to start a life in Connecticut, I feel abandoned by the powers that be in Hartford." She believes the "one-party rule" of Democrats in Hartford "is what's stagnating our economy" and criticized Conley for voting with the majority of Democrats 100% of the time in 2019.

Gauthier said if elected, her first priority would be reducing Connecticut's structural debt, "to start fighting that head-on instead of spreading out payments over the long term." She thinks there can be savings from making state contracts more competitive and putting more "results-based accountability" into contracts.

Her second priority would be bringing innovative businesses into Connecticut, citing data storage centers as an example.

Conley said her top two priorities would be moving online gaming forward and increasing accessibility to health care. But she noted it was hard to narrow her priorities down to two and that she was working on 30 bills when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Capitol in March.

Conley defended her vote on the controversial police accountability bill over the summer, saying it "does a lot of great things that police departments across the state approve of," such as $4 million for body cameras, anti-bias training and "the duty to intervene if someone's constitutional rights are being violated."

"The state does require many professions to be licensed and held accountable, and that includes doctors, nurses, teachers and many others," Conley said.

Gauthier criticized the Connecticut General Assembly for not defining some standards in the bill more clearly in the second special session in the fall. She also criticized the legislature for not taking up any racial health equity bills and for not increasing Medicare reimbursements to nursing home staff in either of the special sessions.

The first session did address telehealth, which both Conley and Gauthier support expanding.

They also both support increasing state investment in tourism marketing, expanding the Connecticut Bottle Bill to include nips bottles, and early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Gauthier said she would "encourage some provisions being changed" on early voting and no-excuse absentee voting bills, though, to ensure elections are secure.

Both are advocates of the Citizens' Election Program, which allows for state funding of campaigns. But Gauthier would like to see some reforms, such as allowing ranked choice voting and randomized ballot orders, and providing benefits to minor-party candidates.

On the topic of tolls, Gauthier called tolls a "regressive tax" and said the state needs a different plan than tolls on tractor-trailers, which Conley has supported, as that has "already failed in courts."

Pointing to the half-billion dollars needed to repair the Gold Star Bridge, Conley said we "need to seriously talk about how to fund our roads and bridges, and it might be bonding."

The candidates differed on the legalization of recreational marijuana. Gauthier said she doesn't support widespread legalization, primarily for health and safety reasons but also because she's not sure how realistic revenue projections would be. She also said she's not willing to risk losing federal defense contracts or employees.

Conley said she supports legalizing recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, saying people are using marijuana and the state needs to regulate that, and "the state could certainly use the revenue."

She said the Judiciary Committee, of which she is a member, is working on ways to make sure people aren't intoxicated while working, driving or using heavy machinery.

e.moser@theday.com

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