NEW BRITAIN - State Rep. William Petit Jr., R-Plainville, sat down with more than a dozen area residents at Gaffney Elementary School Monday night to discuss, over pizza, issues including highway tolls, Puerto Rican students in New Britain schools and marijuana.
Petit said that, as the legislature prepares to reconvene on Feb. 7, 90 percent of the conversations he noted among fellow lawmakers before the end of the last session dealt with getting the state’s fiscal house in order.
However, he said, that did not mean that there were no other hot-button issues. One that Petit singled out was price gouging on medications and medical supplies, such as the EpiPens used by some diabetics. He said he would try to get a law in place preventing the practice.
“I have held these events here, at Diloreto School and elsewhere, and the most common topics are typically taxes, the state debt, tolls and the legalization of marijuana,” said Petit. “Especially in the last six months with the revenue shortfalls, tolls have come up a lot.”
One of the many questions Petit received Monday night, posed by former correctional officer Carmelo Rodriguez Jr., concerned what could be done to aid New Britain’s schools, which have taken in 250 Puerto Rican students in the wake of last year’s calamitous hurricanes. Rodriguez said that the schools didn’t expect to have to budget for these additional students, who still are unable to return home.
“It has been 130 days and many towns are still without light or water in Puerto Rico,” said Rodriguez.
“Hopefully, we will receive some help from the Education Committee and Appropriations Committee,” said Petit. “With New Britain taking in 250 students, this is one of the highest numbers in the state. In Plainville, they have only taken in six to 10 students, so they don’t need as much money.”
Petit praised the Hispanic Caucus, which he said has put forth a grassroots effort to send volunteers to Puerto Rico to help with passing out supplies.
“I encourage all of you to contact our federal representatives on this issue and see what can be done about getting more aid for Puerto Rico,” he said.
Petit later explained the divide on the issue of tolls. One side, he said, favors tolls as a way to replenish the state’s transportation fund and keep repair projects on roads and bridges going. But others consider tolls to be a “regressive tax” that more heavily impacts lower income workers. He added that if tolls were to be instituted on the state’s major highways, congestion and wear on back roads might increase.
“If tolls do come, they won’t be just for out-of-state travelers or on the borders,” he said. “Out-of-state travelers only account for 30 percent of who is on the road.”
On marijuana, Petit said he could not favor complete legalization of the drug for recreational purposes until he understands more about the impact such a move would have.
“The pro-marijuana lobby estimates that legalizing and taxing marijuana could generate $180 million to $200 million a year in revenue,” said Petit. “However, those that are against it point out three things. One, that brains are not fully developed until the age of 25 and that regular marijuana use before then could cause lasting impacts to IQ and decision-making abilities. Second, in some cases, it appears to precipitate psychosis, delusions and schizophrenia. Lastly, there is a concern of how driving under the influence could increase. With marijuana, there is no good way to test how high someone is. THC levels doesn’t correlate well into the impact on the body.”
Petit was challenged on the issue by Terry Neil, who said that the public health impact of marijuana would not be as severe as those associated with smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol.
“I think that the issues to public health don’t outweigh the benefits of legalization,” said Neil. “If we make it legal, we yank the rug out from under the prohibition crime gangs that have cropped up.”
“I can’t say that I disagree from a libertarian stance of ‘Do what you want in your own home as long as you aren’t hurting anybody,’” Petit replied. “However, that is a bit harder to say on the public health side.”
Another attendee later asked Petit to talk about some positive things coming out of the legislature. Petit named the creation of a bonding cap and the phasing out of taxes on pensions and Social Security by 2019.
Pizza for this “Pizza and Politics” event was provided by West Main Pizza of Plainville.
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.