Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Wednesday handed state lawmakers facing a tough reelection year a politically challenging plan calling for tolls, higher gas taxes and new tire sales fees to fund the transportation system.
The choice Malloy offered legislators is between raising hundreds of millions of dollars in new transportation revenue or seeing the state’s highway and transit systems go deeper into gridlock and disrepair.
“The consequences of inaction would be disastrous for the state of Connecticut,” said Malloy.
Political experts like Gary Rose, chairman of Sacred Heart University’s political science department, said passage of Malloy’s toll-and-tax-increase plan will be “extraordinarily difficult” in this election year.
The governor is calling for electronic tolls to raise between $600 million and $800 million a year, a phased-increase in gas taxes to bring in an added $105 million by 2022, speeding up implementation of a sales tax on cars to boost revenue by nearly $70 million in 2020, and a new $8 million-a-year fee on tire sales.
Without that kind of revenue, Malloy said, Connecticut’s road, rail and bus systems will continue to deteriorate and this state will continue to fall behind its neighbors in economic development and jobs. He does have support from construction industry leaders and unions, as well as transportation advocates.
A recent AAA poll found that 47 percent of Connecticut voters support the idea of tolls to help fund the transportation system. Only 16 percent would back higher gas taxes, and 30 percent of those surveyed opposed any of the potential transportation funding plans.
But Malloy’s proposal is going before a sharply divided General Assembly weary from years of deficits, prior tax increases and tough spending cuts. It took lawmakers nine months to pass a budget in 2017, and most are warily looking ahead to what could be a devilishly difficult reelection season.
“They’re between a rock and a hard place,” former long-time Democratic lawmaker Bill Dyson said of the situation facing legislators with regard to finding ways to support the troubled transportation system while still getting reelected. And they are unlikely to get any political help at all from Malloy, who isn’t running for reelection and has some seriously low poll ratings.
“The fact that he’s a lame duck means he can’t do a lot to protect them,” said Dyson, a Democrat who spent 32 years in the legislature before retiring in 2008.
“When you are a lame duck, there is no sense of teamwork any longer among members of your own party,” Rose said. He said that, “particularly in light of [Malloy’s] public approval ratings,” Democratic lawmakers will want to distance themselves from Malloy as much as possible.
A Morning Consult poll last year found that only 29 percent of Connecticut voters approved of the job Malloy was doing as governor – a rating that gives him little political capital to use in this fight.
Malloy has had a rocky relationship with the legislature throughout his time in office, and that reached a new low last year. The governor was eventually barred from budget negotiations, and a final plan was passed over his objections.
“I love the legislature,” Malloy said with a smile Wednesday after bemoaning years of legislative inaction and Republican resistance. “We wouldn’t be the state we are without them.”
Adding to the difficulty of this political situation is that GOP leaders blame Malloy for grandiose rail and road projects they argue have caused the financial problems in the state’s Special Transportation Fund. And Republicans now have more power in the General Assembly than they’ve enjoyed for decades.
Connecticut’s Senate is evenly divided, 18-18, between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman holding the power to break tie votes.
The Senate’s top GOP leader, Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, has repeatedly argued that tolls and gas tax hikes are unnecessary to fix transportation funding. He was able last year to persuade three moderate-to-conservative Democratic senators to vote with the GOP to pass a final budget.
“To just keep taxing people in the state of Connecticut, so someone going to work is going to be taxed when they get on the highway or a major route, is not the way we should be going,’’ Fasano said Wednesday.
In the House, Democrats hold a narrow 79-72 edge in votes. In 2017, Democratic toll advocates like Rep. Tony Guerrera of Rocky Hill admitted they didn’t even have enough support to bring the toll issue up for a House vote.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin is now promising to allow a vote on tolls even if the outcome is uncertain. “I don’t know,’’ Aresimowicz said of the chances of passing tolls. “Right now, it’s a fairness issue. You travel up and down the East Coast, and you are paying tolls. People coming through the state of Connecticut pay nothing.”
Malloy’s plan brought a harsh reaction from House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby. “This is a way for people who do unrealistic and irresponsible budgeting, year after year, to try and just grab whatever revenue they can,’’ Klarides said. “And that is certainly something that we cannot support at this time.”
Cam Staples, who spent 18 years in the General Assembly before retiring, headed up a state panel that recommended in 2016 that electronic tolls made the most sense for funding the transportation system. Staples still believes tolls are the way to go, and said Wednesday he believes lawmakers could “really defend” a vote to put tolls on Connecticut’s major highways.
Staples said a key issue in his estimate is that Connecticut voters will this November vote on a new constitutional “lockbox” provision that would ensure new transportation revenue would be kept for transportation projects. In the past, the legislature and governors – including Malloy – have agreed to divert transportation fund money to help solve non-transportation budget problems.
“I think the lockbox is really a huge issue,” Staples said, adding that voters still need to approve that constitutional amendment.
The partisan nature of the debate over tolls and tax increases was emphasized Wednesday by angry pronouncements from GOP gubernatorial hopefuls like Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Peter Lumaj of Southington.
Boughton called Malloy’s plan “a slap in the face to every resident” in the state. Lumaj termed the proposal “highway robbery.”
Courant Capitol Bureau Chief Christopher Keating contributed to this story.
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