Longtime Republican incumbent Arthur O’Neill and Democratic challenger Greg Cava offer voters of the state House’s 69th District sharp differences on tolls and other plans to get the state out of its financial crisis.

O’Neill argues the state needs to cut spending and cut taxes, while Cava said the state needs to be more efficient and find new revenue streams.

Among Cava’s suggestions is highway tolls — a plan O’Neill vehemently opposes.

“It’s just another tax to be imposed on the people of Connecticut,” said O’Neill, a 15-term representative from Southbury who is the House’s longest-serving GOP member.

But Cava argues taxes are higher here because Connecticut residents alone bear the cost of maintaining roads and bridges, unlike in New York or Massachusetts, where drivers passing through the state share the burden through tolls.

“It’s not a tax,” said Cava, a Roxbury resident and member of the Region 12 Board of Education. “It’s a user fee.”

Still, the candidates agree on supporting measures to help seniors stay in the state. The 69th District covers Bridgewater, Roxbury, Washington and Southbury, where a large number of seniors live because of Heritage Village, a community for adults 55 and older.

Both candidates back freezing property taxes for retirees, a move they said would help seniors afford to stay in their homes.

“I want to make Connecticut a place that people want to retire to,” Cava said.

For O’Neill, improving Connecticut’s economy comes down to reducing taxes to encourage businesses that left the state to return, and to attract new business. To do that, the state must cut spending and address the problems with pensions for state employees and teachers, O’Neill said.

He criticized state employees’ options to drive up their pension benefits by working overtime in their last few years before retirement. He said he was against outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan for towns to cover part of the cost of teacher pensions.

“That is a terrible thing to shift this cost to the municipalities,” O’Neill said. “It’s been a responsibility of the state.”

He proposed reducing spending by extending the wage freeze for state employees and keeping positions open when staff retire. He said the state should cut the budgets of some departments and agencies, such as the Commission on Equity and Opportunity and the Board of Regents for state colleges.

O’Neill said the Regents is a waste of money, providing bloated salaries to former members of the governor’s administration.

“(The Board of Regents) is not really necessary,” he said. “They don’t do anything functionally. They don’t educate people. They don’t take care of people. They don’t provide housing for people, but they drive tuition up.”

Meanwhile, Cava said the state House needs new representatives to develop fresh ideas to improve the economy, especially in western Connecticut.

“Every year, we send the same people to Hartford and we do the same things and come up with new and improved gimmicks to balance our budget,” said Cava who twice ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state Senate. “What we’re not doing is anything about the structural problems that are leading to these things.”

In the short term, the state government needs to become more efficient and deliver the same services for less money, Cava said. Then the state needs to focus on its strengths — its educational systems and its workforce — to help boost the economy.

“We have really smart people,” Cava said. “We have great educational institutions. We have the best industrial workforce in the world. What we need to do is leverage those (strengths) in partnerships with corporate efforts.”

Cava said he would focus on creating a program to encourage students to pursue trades, such as mechanics or carpentry. These fields are becoming less popular in part because school guidance counselors stress attending traditional colleges, rather than trade schools.

“We need to make sure people understand the value of those trades,” Cava said.

O’Neill suggested turning the Southbury Training School into an indoor farming center, which would provide jobs for students at nearby vocational and agricultural schools. The state plans to eventually close the training school, which is a facility for adults with developmental disabilities.

He got the idea from his wife, Ruby Corby O’Neill, who ran in the Republican primary for the U.S. House 5th District. He said he could start planning for the proposal this legislative session.

“This is a new area of economic activity for the state of Connecticut,” O’Neill said. “That would be something if we could catch a wave like that for the future, rather than trying to hang onto the past.”

jperkins@newstimes.com 203-731-3337