Four small business-owning state lawmakers, representing both sides of the political fence, found bipartisanship on a key issue—businesses must have a seat at the table when public policy is developed.

Sen. Christine Cohen (D-Guilford), Rep. Laura Devlin (R-Fairfield), Sen. Paul Formica (R-East Lyme), and Sen. Norm Needleman (D-Essex) shared ideas for improving the state's business climate at CBIA's Jan. 13 Economic Summit + Outlook.

Joe Brennan, Laura Devlin, Norm Needleman, Christine Cohen, Paul Formica
CBIA's Joe Brennan moderated the discussion between Rep. Laura Devlin, Sen. Norm Needleman, Sen. Christine Cohen, and Sen. Paul Formica.

"Having business owners lend a different perspective as legislation and legislative proposals come across our desk is of utmost importance," Cohen, co-owner of Cohen's Bagels in Madison, told a crowd of 500. 

Formica, owner of Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant in East Lyme, agreed being a business owner influences his approach to policy development.

"Unlike most businesses, the government's going to be here a hundred years from now," Formica said. 

"We have to take a positive approach with fiscal restraint...We have to treat our people well, empower them, and make sure we're watching our spending."

Needleman, owner of Tower Laboratories in Centerbrook and a first-term legislator like Cohen, added "you can't have a successful business climate if you don't take business into account."

Business Climate

While the four agreed on a range of issues, there was no clear consensus over the direction of the state's business climate.

Devlin, owner of Communications Strategic Consulting, said her goal for this legislative session, which begins Feb. 5, was "do no harm."

"We had one of the least business friendly legislative sessions this past year," she said. "I plan to stop a lot of poor legislation that will further hurt companies.

"If we don't have a positive business climate, we cannot grow our economy."

Needleman says he has "not found Connecticut to be a horrible place to do business."

"If we don't have a positive business climate, we cannot grow our economy."

Rep. Laura Devlin

"I am tired of hearing that drumbeat," he said. "There are issues to address, and we don't have the resources to address some of our major challenges...but we are on the right path."

Cohen said the state's economy and business climate were paying the price for "past mismanagement of pension funding," adding she sees progress on workforce development and regulatory reform.

"I'm looking for specific areas where we can ease regulatory burdens," she said.

Formica told the crowd the state needs "to change our approach to how we run government."

"We're last in a lot of things we should be first in and first in a lot of things we should be last in," he said.

'Balanced Approach'

The panel fielded numerous audience questions, including one asking how they influence the legislative process.

Cohen shared that during last year's debate over raising the hourly minimum wage to $15, many of her Democratic colleagues wanted to see an even faster increase than the eventual five increments through June 2023.

"We really needed to pump the brakes on this and not have that fast progression," Cohen said.

Needleman agreed that slowing the increase helped small businesses adjust to higher wages more gradually.

"Bringing the perspective of employing people and making a payroll to the General Assembly is a good thing," he said. 

"Every week I have to worry about a fairly substantial payroll and sometimes, legislators work in a bubble and don't necessarily consider that."

Formica called for a greater policy balance, saying the legislature often passes worker-friendly legislation that penalizes businesses, particularly small employers.

"None of us would be here without good employees," he said. "But there has to be a balance."

"The legislature can't take a one-size-fits-all approach," added Cohen.

"We have to understand that the needs of businesses vary by size and industry."

Bipartisanship

Devlin pointed out that bipartisanship at the state Capitol is the norm, not the exception.

"Probably 95% of legislation passes with unanimous support," she said.

"It's when we get into serious policy issues—like fiscal issues—that we often run into differences."

Formica added that there needed to be greater bipartisanship around the budgeting process, "so the best interests of the people of Connecticut are realized."

"We really do need to work together no matter what party is in charge."

Sen. Norm Needleman

Needleman responded to another audience question—"What's your biggest frustration as a legislator?"

"I'm not used to not getting my way," he said. "There's 186 other legislators with their own agendas.

"We really do need to work together no matter what party is in charge."

'Engage'

Devlin said the projected wave of state employee retirements represented "an opportunity to reduce the size and cost of government and modernize state government operations."

Needleman agreed, adding "We are on the right path. We have cut 17,000 workers out of the state government in the past 10 to 11 years."

Cohen said there is a positive story to tell in Connecticut.

"We need to hear from you about the things that impact your business."

Sen. Christine Cohen

"We are ranked very highly for quality of life and that's not a small thing when it comes to workforce recruitment," she said.

All four legislators urged business leaders to be more engaged with their state lawmakers and the legislative process.

"We need to hear from you about the things that impact your business," Cohen said.