U.S. senator sees positives in economy during Valley chamber talk

While the U.S. economy may not be as strong as people want, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said there is positive momentum.

The economy is growing, the federal budget deficit is declining, the country is producing more of its own energy, and the American workforce is younger than in many other nations, Murphy said.

“We shouldn’t be so defensive about the economy,” Murphy told attendees last week at the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce’s 50th annual meeting.

But Murphy, a Democrat first elected in 2012, said the government needs to invest more in infrastructure — including in transmission lines to get natural gas from domestic sources to the Northeast.

Funds should be targeted to science, education and transportation because “we’re an innovation-based economy,” he said.

“We are not making investments,” he said, noting America spends 3% of its budget on infrastructure compared to 12% in China and 6% in Europe.

Says his native Bristol is like the Valley

Murphy was the keynote speaker at the breakfast meeting, attended by a few hundred people at the Grassy Hill Lodge in Derby.

He said he can relate to the economy of the Valley as someone who grew up in Bristol, where many empty factory buildings now exist.

While Murphy gave a mostly upbeat view, he did raise concerns about some economic indicators. For instance, he said while America had the highest percentage of college graduates a decade ago, it now ranks 12th in the world. He blamed this on the skyrocketing cost of college.

Supports trains and higher gas tax

Derby Mayor Anita Dugato welcomed guests to the meeting, thanking the chamber for its role in boosting the region’s economy.

Dugato praised Murphy for his assistance in saving the Waterbury railroad line that goes through the Valley and forms what she called “a vital transportation link.”

Murphy said a revitalized branch line in the Valley— with modern train stations, electrification and signalization — has “great potential” to attract businesses and residents. “This is one of those deals — if you build it, they will come,” he said.

The senator defended his new proposal to raise gas taxes by 12 cents over two years to fund the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is almost out of money.

The federal gas tax hasn’t gone up in 20 years, he said, and only half the money the fund needs now is being collected.

Murphy said Connecticut does well with the fund, getting $1.60 for projects for every $1 paid in taxes within the state, and that he state’s economic growth depends on improving transportation connections to New York and Boston.

Calling the gas tax “a user fee,” he said, “we have to stop pretending money is going to fall off trees to pay for infrastructure.”

Trade with Europe

Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, said Europe is an important trading partner for many Connecticut firms. He said 40% of the state’s foreign trade is with Europe.

A new European trade pact under consideration would be a plus because usual concerns about labor and environmental laws in the other countries don’t really apply to Europe, which often has more progressive policies than the U.S., Murphy said.

A tribute and two awards

The chamber meeting also included a moment of silence for state Rep. Larry Miller, who had represented a part of Shelton for 23 years until his death in late May.

Murphy, who previously served in the state legislature with Miller, called him “a quiet hero” for his bipartisan work on stem cell research in Hartford.

Philip White of Better Packages highlighted the many chamber programs as well as how the business organization works to better the overall Valley community, such as by assisting victims of the January downtown fire in Shelton.

Outgoing Housatonic Community College President Anita Gliniecki was presented with an award for overseeing what chamber President Bill Purcell said was “a transformation” at HCC during the past eight years.

More than 10% of HCC students come from the Valley, and it has one of three advanced manufacturing training labs in the state.

Marc Connolly of Shelton was recognized for his work on healthcare issues and for providing assistance to the late James Goodman of Shelton during a long illness. Goodman, who was an active chamber member, died at age 53 in March.

Connolly oversees Liberty Rehab and Patient Aid Center, with four offices in southwestern Connecticut.