From the Founders II
An Appreciation of Senator Bill Nickerson
By Bob Capazzo
When state senator Bill Nickerson announced that he would not be running for reelection to the Connecticut Senate, we knew we were facing a major loss. For the past eighteen years, he has been an effective voice championing the interests of Greenwich, along with Stamford and New Canaan in his 36th District. We will be losing a key Republican member of a state legislature dominated by Democrats. More importantly, we will lose a strong advocate of responsible, common sense fiscal policies that are critical to the economic health of our state and to Fairfield County, the state’s economic engine.
Bill Nickerson began his political career thirty-nine years ago as a member of the RTM. (He points out, with all due respect, that this was before the birth of our current first selectman.) He served seventeen years in the RTM before being elected to the State House of Representatives for two terms, followed by his election to the State Senate in 1991. During his tenure in the senate, he has been chief deputy minority leader, the longest sitting member of the Finance Committee and in recent years its ranking member. More recently, he was named ranking member of the Transportation Committee as well.
We asked him what were the high points in his long career in the senate, what he was proudest of. Without a moment’s hesitation he said it was the twelve bipartisan legislative achievement awards he received and the two awards for Legislator of the Year. His pride is understandable considering the challenge of working with such strong Democratic majorities during most of his career, majorities that weren’t particularly sympathetic with a guy representing that rich downstate community of Greenwich.
“When I first arrived in Hartford,” he says “they were asking me where I parked my golden carriage!” Nickerson’s ability to take a kidding and to hand it back has earned him many friendships on both sides of the aisle. “You are working with all kinds of people, some of quite different backgrounds,” he says. But it is obvious that he enjoys and excels at developing interpersonal relationships, and his integrity and clear, insightful presentations have earned him the respect in the state legislature of friends and opponents alike.
“The job of legislators,” insists Nickerson, “is to affect the outcome. It’s not enough to just be present and cast a vote.” And Bill Nickerson has many good outcomes to his credit. He considers the spending cap legislation he co-authored to be foremost among them. It is the most important tool in managing the budget, and though he sadly notes that it was violated in the last budget, it acts as a brake on runaway spending.
He asks those who have criticized him for voting for the income tax to think back and consider the alternative. In 1990 the state suffered a gigantic deficit brought about by a recession and catastrophic spending by Governor William O’Neill, who resigned in the face of the economic dilemma. In desperation the legislature levied a 16 percent tax on dividends and interest, an 8 percent tax on capital gains, plus an 8 percent sales tax. “Nothing could have been more antibusiness, and it was aimed directly at Fairfield County taxpayers,” he says. Nickerson voted for the income tax as an alternative and in exchange for the spending cap. He achieved an important temporal victory in 1994 when John Rowland had just been elected governor. Nickerson was then chairman of the Finance Committee in a Republican controlled senate, and he shepherded the bill that phased out the estate tax over a five-year period. Unfortunately, in spite of the counterproductive results that the estate tax will produce, the Democratic legislature has since re-imposed one with a notoriously arbitrary structure.
Key to the health and future of our state economy is transportation. Here Bill Nickerson has played a key role in gaining acceptance for the budget to replace 342 aging high-maintenance rail cars on Metro North. He has been a constant critic of the DOT for its lack of responsiveness — an organization, he says, with a well-deserved “castle and moat” reputation. He feels we are making headway in creating greater transparency and accountability, but much more needs to be done.
Nickerson believes there are three things that a legislator can and should do:
• Create legislation.
• Influence administration and the direction of department policy.
• Obtain state funding for his constituency or, in his words, “bring back home the dollars we have sent to Hartford.”
On all three counts, Bill Nickerson has done an outstanding job. He has obtained state financial support for the Boys & Girls Club, the Byram Shubert Library, Greenwich Adult Day Care and, most recently, a two million dollar state bond to cover half the cost for remediation of the Cos Cob power plant site. His many awards have come from the Connecticut Coalition Against Gun Violence for his sponsorship of legislation on assault weapons and handgun controls; from various environmental organizations for his support of the acquisition of such open space projects as Treetops and the Blake Coleman property; from the Bartlett Arboretum; and from the Connecticut Coalition for Choice for his work on landmark pro-choice legislation.
Not generally known, however, is a less tangible but important contribution he has made, not just to his constituency, but to the State of Connecticut. Bill Nickerson has served in the administration of four governors, and in his role on the Senate Finance Committee, he has been a trusted adviser to each in matters of responsible fiscal management. We are greatly in his debt for his many years of service and for his help in promoting rational budgetary policies that benefit the economic health of our
entire state. — Jack Moffly