A Republican candidate for governor, Steve Obsitnik, says “the knobs are out there,” people know what needs to be done to improve the Connecticut economy, which was recently ranked 43rd among the 50 states in the country.
In an interview with New Canaan Advertiser / HAN Network one month before the Aug. 14 Republican primaries, the high tech businessman, Westport resident and former U.S. Navy submarine engineer talked about how he would manage to get the knobs turned if elected.
State of emergency
To reduce the cost of state employee benefits and catch up on the funding of teacher pensions, Obsitnik said, “On day one, I will enact a financial state of emergency in Connecticut,” as a practical matter, not a legal one. “I will give us 120 days. We’ll invite the unions in … both sides bring a team of experts, we’ll meet every day for 120 days. Let’s hash out a framework that brings fiscal stability back.”
“If we can’t get there in a reasonable period of time knowing all the tools we have available to solve this crisis, I will not let our state go bankrupt. I will look at things like the sovereign immunity protections in the state constitution. This may be used when a fiscal crisis threatens the state’s ability to deliver services to all residents.” Obsitnik said, “Sovereign immunity shields the state from having to sacrifice public services in favor of the needs of a subset of residents.”
“I don’t want to use this tool,” the candidate said, “but the citizens of Connecticut need to know I will restore fiscal stability to our state.”
“I want a bring stability back so a pensioner can count on their pension,” he said, “so someone paying into it can know it’s going to be there.”
Obsitnik pointed to 42,000 state workers who “are paying into a system that may not be there for them.” The current funding of pensions at 30 cents for every dollar committed means for every one person who gets the retirement benefit, two won’t, he said.
“I want to live up to the commitment a retiree was given; it’s not their fault a politician gave them a deal they did not pay for.”
Workers may have to pay in more if they expect the pension, Obsitnik said. “We need to get them to make the change for their own benefit so they know it’s going to be there … We may have to look at other retirement costs, medical and stuff like that,” he added.
“For new workers coming in, it’s time for a 401(k) plan.”
Part of his specific solution is “to take the obligation that we have, which will balloon in about six years, and amortize it into the future.” He says the payments that the state makes for pensions and benefits need to be leveled, “so the state can afford to make the payments and catch up along the way.”
Obsitnik is a graduate of Stamford High School, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Ivy League’s Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has never held elected office, though he ran against Jim Himes for Congress in 2012, a campaign in which Himes prevailed.
The personal business success that Obsitnik most often talks about, albeit in a rather modest way, is developing voice recognition software that eventually was sold to Apple and became Siri, which enables electronic devices to respond to human commands and inquiries.
In his talk with HAN, the nuclear submarine engineer said, again with apparent modestly, “I am not the smartest person in the room, but I one of the best leaders, synthesizers, consensus builders, decision makers; those are my skill sets.”
“People either view the world through transactions or through relationships,” Obsitnik said. “I view it through relationships, building relationships.”
When asked about getting things done with a legislature, even if the Democrats retain a majority, Obsitnik referred to Charlie Baker, the Republican businessman-turned governor of Massachusetts, who is “working really well with the [Democratic-majority] legislature there. “So it can be done,” Obsitnik said.
Plan and outcomes
Obsitnik says that his five-step plan would create 300,000 jobs; add $3.8 billion in tax revenue resulting from economic growth; stabilize state employee and teacher benefit costs and liabilities; reduce spending $3.5 billion; revitalize infrastructure and secure schools; and raise personal income 8%.
Getting back to the “how,” Obsitnik said, “I think we need new creativity.”
Specifically, he would propose targeted tax cuts that would give up $500 million a year in revenue. He would also reduce spending by $3.5 billion, which would result in a $3 billion net improvement to the state budget. He says that would cover the state’s current deficit.
Within two years, he said the budget would be balanced, pensions would be better funded, and the economy would grow toward this goal of 300,000 jobs.
“That’s a lot more taxpayers,” he said.
For business development he proposes creating “career corridors” or industry clusters, like Boston and Pittsburgh have done for rejuvenation. He mentioned, for example, New Haven could be a “center for excellence for senior living or health care delivery,” finance or insurance could be in Stamford or Hartford, advanced manufacturing could be New London or Waterbury.
“I will be the chief economic development officer for the state of Connecticut making these things happen.”
“Is the plan perfect, no; will the plan change? Maybe,” Obsitnik said. “But if I create 100,000 jobs will you be upset with me? Probably not.”
Obsitnik said he would use the line-item veto power of the governor and eliminate pet projects in politicians’ backyard. He said he believes that the unit that bears the responsibility is the unit to try and resolve a problem, whether it be a local business or a town.
“We have to drive [a] level of efficiency to the units,” he said, “because we don’t have the resources we used to have.”
Specific regulations on business that Obsitnik would target for removal: The $250 fee just to start a business and the workers’ compensation program, which has Connecticut paying twice as much as is paid in Massachusetts.
Regarding the distribution of education funds, Obsitnik said that if a town gets fewer dollars from the state it should be relieved of unfunded mandates, so that “if you don’t get ECS [Education Cost Sharing] back you are able to function at net positive level.”
He agreed that throwing money at the problem of education in the cities has not worked. “We need to focus on outcomes, we haven’t been focusing on outcomes.”
Obsitnik said it is expected that 100,000 Republicans will vote during Primary Day, and 35,000 votes will win it.
Opponents will do more TV ads, he said, but “I am a technology guy. We do more data-targeting finding groups.”
“I think we have a better shot,” he said, “because we know where our voters are, how we’re bringing them out; we have a big ground game, door knocking, and my personal touch.”
“It comes down to makers versus takers,” he said of the five Republican candidates. “We’ve been led by takers. What takers do is take money from your pocket and put it in their pocket. I am running against two career politicians who take your money, convert it to taxes and spend it. And two wealthy billionaires in finance who take your money and take fees out of it.”
“They benefit, but you don’t,” Obsitnik said. “They get more fees and more taxes.”
“I am a job maker. When I make a job, I buy metal, they win. When I bend it and put a software code in …” the vendors benefit. “Everyone benefits when you grow an economy.”