Another piece of the tolls meltdown story fell into place Friday afternoon as Gov. Ned Lamont publicly instructed his budget chief to draw up a municipal aid bond package worth $625 million, no later than March 6.
That means finally, after waiting for their money since July 1, cities and towns no longer have to watch the train wreck of a tolls debate unfold with their money for local roads, school construction and other infrastructure projects hanging in the balance.
It appears that Friday’s happy news for the towns stemmed from a Wednesday lunch event in Southington — the same afternoon when Lamont angrily pulled the plug on the troubled plan to toll heavy trucks.
Without tolls, Lamont has said all along, the state will have to borrow an extra $200 million a year for state bridge and highway work. That left a lot of bonding projects — and town aid — swinging in the wind.
The governor put off the towns’ howls as long as he could, all the while promising they’d be made whole. It now appears that the $150 million in town road aid and local capital improvement grants will be on a State Bond Commission agenda in early March, if the legislature approves the request as expected.
Another $475 million in school construction money — less than the typical annual amount because the needs are less — is also headed for final approval. All of it would come barely in time for the towns to gather bids for the upcoming build-it and pave-it season.
Some have waited patiently with understanding, others with anger and frustration. Many of them gathered at the Aqua Turf in Southington for the annual meeting of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
And who came to that annual meeting as the lunch speaker to face those local folks? Yes, it was Lamont.
The governor wasn’t crushed by an angry mob, Betsy Gara, executive director of the council, told me Friday.
“They just pointed out that these were the projects that were being held up and how important it was for these projects to move forward,” she said. “It does seem as though he heard us.”
Loudly. By no coincidence, less than two hours after he returned to the Capitol, Lamont summoned reporters to his office to announce enough was enough.
At least one key senator needed for the 18-vote total was wavering that afternoon. And the House and Senate continued to bicker about who would have to vote first, and whether they could split the tolls bill in two, like King Solomon’s baby.
Friday’s announcement freeing up the town money was Lamont’s way of telling the towns he’s on their side even as the lawmakers they sent to Hartford put their money in harm’s way. He could have done this earlier, but it was part of his leverage to prod a vote on tolls.
“We are now eight months into the fiscal year without solutions to our transportation needs and a bond package. No longer can our cities and towns wait,” Lamont said in a letter Friday afternoon to Melissa McCaw, his budget chief.
Later Friday, McCaw, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, released a proposed bill and letters to legislators saying she hopes to schedule a bond commission meeting by March 18.
The fight now is over whether Lamont will keep non-transportation bonding at $1.7 billion, or lop off $200 million to feed transportation in the absence of tolls, as he indicated he would do Wednesday. Even the $1.7 billion was a compromise, more than Lamont wanted to commit, but less than former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s average of just over $2 billion.
Democrats and some Republicans have pressured Lamont to ease up on his so-called debt diet, and free up more money for the projects they want to tout in their re-election campaigns.
You know, a park here, a refurbished train station there, a job training program over yonder, maybe some strategically placed housing money for a city. It’s the grease of politics in more ways than one as we the people spend, and maybe benefit.
Those battles will have to wait for another day. For now, the town aid that was tied to tolls for the better part of a year is seemingly in the clear — probably due to Lamont’s midday trip to Southington.
“This is huge for towns. It’s a wonderful way to usher in the spring,” said Gara, who didn’t speculate on Lamont’s motives in the tolls issue.
In a news release minutes later, she added, “Towns are now breathing a huge sigh of relief because funding will be available soon so that towns can go out to bid.”
That’s the operations part of the story — they could wait no more. The political part is that a governor who has failed to see his signature policy enacted is learning that in fractured, little Connecticut, a direct hand to towns is almost as important as a strong arm over lawmakers.