Clarification: An earlier version of this column named Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, as a Republican who might vote for tolls in 2021. Logan actively opposes tolls.
I got a call Friday from an irate Democrat, an elected official upset over the way the transportation rollout went down. It prompted me to look ahead to 2021.
This officeholder, who’s in a big job, is pro-tolls, not no-tolls. He or she wasn’t mad at Gov. Ned Lamont or the Republicans or the tenacious activists who helped kill Lamont’s $320 million plan to toll 14 bridges and highway interchanges.
No, this elected Democrat vented squarely at Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven — majority leader and president pro-tem of the state Senate, respectively.
They failed to shepherd enough support to pull Lamont’s plan to victory, the officeholder huffed, thus failing a state that counted on them to do the right thing. What good was the 2018 Democratic tidal wave in the Senate, if they were just going to play dead instead of enacting a modest, common-sense idea?
This angry Democrat isn’t alone. Contrary to popular belief, a silent majority in the state — drowned out by opponents — does want tolls if the money is spent the right way.
And the time for that to happen is 2021. Let this moment mark the start of the Tolls 2021 movement. Slogan: “Other states pay, we save.”
It didn’t happen in 2019 for reasons we’ve gone over. Louder opponents than supporters, Lamont’s lack of experience dealing with the legislature, no clear plan for how to spend the money until the fall, too many first-term senators worried about keeping their seats.
It’s not going to happen in 2020 for one simple reason: It’s a short, 4-month General Assembly session in an election year, not the time to devise a complex financing scheme that divides the state. As one lawmaker said to me, “In election years people say ‘Let’s do no harm.’”
“I don’t see anything happening for tolls in 2020,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, the pro-tolls co-chairman of the General Assembly’s transportation committee.
Ah, but 2021? That legislative session starts in less than 14 months. The timing could be exquisite politically and economically — if we start now, and if we move toward a plan that really works.
More on that in a minute; first, here’s why CT rolls with tolls in ’21:
* Lamont will be a third-year governor – either frustrated and leaning against a re-election bid in 2022, or in the sweet spot of his stride. Either way, he’ll be more in position to lead the way on tolls than he is now. You can say 2019 was the right moment with a newly elected governor and strong majorities in the House and Senate. But Lamont had campaigned against broad tolling and he made some gaffes. He choked off bonding for town projects and his budget shortchanged the transportation fund by $158 million from the car sales tax — a gift to opponents who said Lamont couldn’t be trusted with tolls.
* We have a huge class of 11 first-term Senate Democrats, many of them nervous over tolls. Think about it, nearly one-third of the whole Senate comprises Dems who took office in 2019 — and we really expected them to risk their new seats and take a generational vote? By 2021, they’ll be on more solid footing if they win reelection, as most of them will with Trump on the ballot next year.
* Moderate Republicans who might vote for tolls could be free of President Donald Trump and thus the toxic, anti-everything Trumpism that’s a tumor on the GOP. That could mean a few Republican votes for tolls. Remember, in many states it’s Republicans who lead the way on tolls because tolls are user fees rather than taxes on assets or income.
* By 2021, we should have enacted the financing plan put forth on Thursday by Sen. Len Fasano and his fellow Senate Republicans. It will use $1.2 billion of the state’s rainy-day fund, or about 40 percent of the state’s financial cushion, to pay down pension debt. That in turn will lower our pension payments by some $225 million a year, which we can then use to secure low-interest federal loans. That plan makes sense if we can’t have tolls but by 2021 we’ll realize we need a more permanent source of revenue that gives us free money from outside the state.
* We will start the budget process anew, most likely with projected shortfalls that require hard choices — like tolls.
* By 2021 we will either have a recession, and will need that cushion and therefore we’ll be desperate to charge New Yorkers, Bostonians and the rest of the nation to pass through Connecticut, as they require of us; or we’ll be status quo, ready for Phase II of the financing plan. That would mean tolls as a smart, long-term solution that cuts down on borrowing and brings in 40 percent from out-of-state drivers and interstate trucks.
Democrats I spoke with are not eager to embrace this campaign, at least not yet. Why run on a divisive issue that won’t come to a vote before Election Day?
“There are still some hurt feelings all around,” Leone, a tolls supporter, said Monday. But he added, “It’s a scenario that has possibilities.”
A lot depends on the details, as Lamont learned when he shrank the springtime plan down to 14 gantries statewide, only to discover that key senators felt singled out while other districts, notably the Bridgeport area, came out toll-free.
Here’s what would work: statewide, linear tolling of whole highways, to be fair in a state that’s obsessed with town fiefdoms. And it has to add no more than $300 million to the tax base. That means gantries must be plentiful but cheap, like 60 gates at 3 cents per mile. That’s inefficient mechanically but effective politically.
Better still, couple broad tolling with tax cuts elsewhere — like property tax credits combined with Lamont’s earlier idea of credits for low-income drivers, the better to win more liberal votes.
For now, we’re in a moment of anger, which may or may not be misplaced. Duff and Looney can argue that they couldn’t have handed Lamont a victory no matter how hard they tried. They might be right, though some in their own party remain disappointed.
No more looking back. Let’s turn the negatives into a positive by building upward from this day forward. Tolls in 2021 can work, but only if Democrats and a few like-minded Republicans think about what’s best for the state, not their political fortunes.
Tolls mean lower costs for taxpayers in the long run. Other states pay, we save.