With Democrats divided, passage of tolls no sure thing
HARTFORD — Even as Gov. Ned Lamont and top Democrats in the legislature trumpet the need for tolls, passage is by no means certain.
A vote on tolls in the House is likely to be close because some House Democrats oppose or have serious concerns. With House Republicans promising to vote as a bloc against tolls, House Democrats can only afford 16 no votes from their party to pass tolls.
Four House Democrats told Hearst Connecticut Media this week they will vote against all toll legislation. Two others said they will vote no on the bill as currently written. Several others would not commit to a no vote, but said they had serious questions that must be addressed in the final draft of the bill.
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Meanwhile, Lamont’s administration said Wednesday it believed toll legislation would pass this session. Lamont has traveled the state speaking about the need to use revenue from tolling passenger cars to invest in the state’s transportation infrastructure, although on the campaign trail he said he only supported tolling trucks.
“I’m confident that we will be able to win the argument at the end of the day,” said Ryan Drajewicz, chief of staff to Lamont, who was in D.C. Wednesday and Thursday, where he met with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
House Democrats discussed tolls as a caucus for the first time Wednesday, but did not take a vote count.
“I’m not even skiing for the votes yet,” said Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “We don’t know what the tolling system is going to be. We don’t know where it’s going to raise money. We don’t know what the negotiations will look like.”
The Danbury delegation forms the core of the Democratic opposition in the House. Democratic State Reps. Bob Godfrey, David Arconti, Raghib Allie-Brennan and Ken Gucker all told Hearst Connecticut Media they will vote against any toll proposal put before them.
“My position has not changed since I first ran for the seat in 2012,” said Arconti. “While I understand the transportation needs of the state for the future economic health of our state, I do not believe tolls are the answer.”
Allie-Brennan said he wished the legislature would have a more robust discussion about tolling alternatives, other than bonding transportation costs, which Republicans champion.
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, confirmed she will vote no with the rest of her delegation, but Democrats appear to have stronger support for tolls in that chamber.
Their opposition stems from their constituents, although several of the representatives said their constituents continue to believe false information that tolls will be placed on the Connecticut border, even though that is not permitted by a federal transportation agreement.
Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, said he opposes the current toll proposal because he wants low-income residents who receive federal food assistance or housing vouchers to receive an 80 percent discount.
“I could not be in favor of a bill if it is not written if we don’t protect the ones that are the most needy,” said Michel. “I’m not going to be a part of it.”
Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, voice similar worries about low-income residents at a Transportation Committee meeting last week, in which the committee voted to advance three toll bills. The legislation did not include additional discounts for low-income drivers.
Lamont’s toll proposal includes an estimated 30 percent discount for Connecticut residents and an additional 20 percent discount for commuters. The proposal does not know include specific discounts for low-income residents, but those will be “evaluated” in the future, said Maribel La Luz, a spokesperson for the governor’s office.
“The alternatives to tolls really are either jacking up the gas tax, which would fall directly on Connecticut residents, including low-income residents, and the other alternative is whatever supposed plan the Republicans have which would borrow a ton of money, again falling solely on Connecticut paying debt service on that borrowing,” said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who firmly supports tolls. “Those to me are much more regressive than tolls would be... also a lot of my constituents who are low-income, the ones that live in good swaths of my district, they use public transit.”
For Rep. Tom Arnone, D-Enfield, tolls are okay on Interstate 95, but he will vote against a toll proposal that includes gantries on his area of I-91.
“Our concerns in Enfield are we have a lot of commerce coming in from Massachusetts to use our malls and our plazas and shops,” said Arnone. “Most people feel (the toll plan) is too ambitious. They’ve never driven though a state where every highway is tolled.”
Lamont’s toll proposal includes 53 gantries on I-84, 91, 95 and Route 15.
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Chesire, said she is “on the fence” because she can’t get all the answers she wants about discounts for Connecticut residents before the federal government gives feedback and that feedback must come after a toll plan is passed by the legislature.
Other Democrats have also raised concerns about the oversight of a proposed transportation authority and how much concern the legislature would retain over tolls.
Democrats like Reps. Matt Blumenthal and Caroline Simmons of Stamford insist they are withholding judgment until they see the bill’s final language.
Blumenthal wanted more details on the discounts and where gantries would be located. He has concerns too many will be placed in Fairfield County.
“We need to fill in some of the blanks,” said Blumenthal. “Is the tolling burden in the state going to be shared equitably by the state? ...I don’t want my constituents paying an undue share, an unfair share.”
Simmons criticized the Stamford Board of Representatives for passing a toothless resolution voicing their opposition to tolls.
“The same group is also upset about the fact that we have one of the highest gas taxes in New England, so you know, if it can be coupled with a reduction in the gas tax and discounts for Connecticut residents,” said Simmons. “This is also the same group that complains that we need more business growth in the state and this is one of the top priorities business is looking at.”
None of the Democrats supported a Republican plan to use bonding to pay for transportation improvements.
Ken Dixon contributed this report.
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