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Representative Brian Ohler Looks Back on His First Session in Hartford

Budget woes overshadow other issues

 

By Susannah Wood

State Representative Brian Ohler had already arrived at the Berkshire Country Store and was deep in conversation with Ryan Craig when I walked in five minutes ahead of our scheduled appointment Against the background noise of coffee traffic and orders for late breakfasts, we settled into a wide-ranging discussion of the seemingly endless 2017 legislative session. Rep. Ohler had just announced a perfect voting record, participating in 417 votes in the regular and special sessions.

During this session, Governor Malloy and the legislature have been struggling to plug a gap of $175 million in 2018 and $150 million in 2019 over and above the $880 million in cuts that the legislature directed the governor to make. Rep. Ohler expressed his dismay that, right before Thanksgiving, Governor Malloy had issued additional cuts to the Education Cost Sharing program as well as zeroing out funding for tourism districts and fire schools and severely cutting arts and culture funding. Ohler said that new cuts to Norfolk’s ECS funding would amount to about $20,816. He noted that gambling profits were originally supposed to contribute to public education and called for legislation to mandate it, although he is not personally in favor of casinos in general and does not support a third one. He thinks that there could be a better way of funding the regional schools that would somehow split running costs and per-pupil tuition.

Ohler is a strong supporter of the tourism districts; the Green Bank, which makes loans for commercial clean energy projects using public/private partnerships; and the Community Investment Act, which has funded many improvements in the Northwest Corner towns. All suffered major cuts or were zeroed out in the budget, but Ohler sees them as significant job producers and ways to bring revenue. He mentioned a study done in 2015 under the office of the governor which concluded that tourism pulled in about a billion dollars in Litchfield County.

Ohler said that the legislature had laid out where the cuts could be made, largely in administrative expenditure, and he would like to see the legislature brought back into session to address how these cuts were actually made. A spokesman for Malloy, however, says that the legislature had passed on the responsibility of specific cuts to the governor and that many cost-cutting measures such as hiring freezes and reductions in overtime had largely already been taken.

In response to the claim that we are overly dependent on tax revenue from a small number of wealthy people living in Fairfield County, Ohler cited this scary statistic: if 15 of the richest families moved out of state, we would lose 30 percent of our tax revenue. He pointed to the fact that many middle-class families have left the state and others wish they could. He sees “reducing spending and stabilizing our finances” rather than taxation as the way to make the state more attractive to businesses and families.

A special problem for the Northwest Corner, he pointed out, is that both New York and Massachusetts offer tax incentives to new businesses. A company can move to Sheffield to take advantage of that incentive and still maintain its customer base in Connecticut. “We need to offer our small businesses the same kinds of advantages as our bigger companies. In the Northwest Corner, our small businesses make up 80 per cent of the overall employment and we can’t risk losing them to Massachusetts and New York, because the temptations are there.”

Asked about his thoughts on the $70 million cut to the state’s Medicaid program, which would drop about 68,000 elderly and disabled residents from assistance with medical bills, Ohler said that the legislature tried to help soften the blow somewhat with the rental rebate. (A review of those benefits shows that for those with incomes over the new limit for assistance, which is $11,880, the rental rebate would be a few hundred dollars at best.) According to Ohler, the first nine GOP budgets presented to the legislature did not cut these funds. He also said part of the problem is the loss of providers of health insurance in the state, down from eight or nine to only four, which has driven up costs. “I’m a firm believer that the Affordable Care Act should be kept in place. I never once said repeal was the proper way to go.” he declared, “there are ways to improve it.” He went on to say that with so many now insured under the program, “it’s completely irresponsible to take that away from them.”

When I brought up the vote to give Dominion Energy $300 million in subsidies for the Millstone nuclear power plant without requiring the company to show that it needed the money, Ohler called it a bad precedent, saying, “It’s why I voted against it. We should be demanding the books.”

The opioid crisis has been one of Ohler’s top issues during the first few months of his term, and we discussed what progress has been made. He gives credit to the nonprofit organizations in our area like the McCall Center for Behavioral Health and the Northwest Corner Prevention Network and applauds expanded efforts to reach school children. He referred to the antismoking campaign of the late 1980s and 1990s as a good model, saying that “in some circles heroin is almost glorified. We need to change that mentality.”

The two major accomplishments he cited were passing a seven-day limit on prescriptions and linking up doctors through a computer network so that patients who go doctor hopping can be identified and approached for counseling. He criticized President Trump for declaring the opioid crisis an epidemic rather than a national emergency, which would have freed up millions of dollars for prevention and treatment efforts.

I asked him about a bill he introduced in the beginning of the session that would make first-time heroin possession a felony when treatment has been shown to be more effective. Ohler replied that the language of the bill when drafted was not clear enough, that its purpose was to target heroin dealers. He supports a therapeutic rather than a punitive approach for users but feels the current law is too lax on dealers, who he says are arrested over and over again but not held accountable, which is demoralizing for the police.

This is part one of Susannah Wood’s discussion with Rep. Ohler. A second part of this article in the next issue of Norfolk Now will focus on environmental issues.

Photo, top, of State Rep. Brian Ohler (R) in conversation at the Berkshire Country Store in Norfolk, by Bruce Frisch.

 

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