Sunday, June 09, 2019

Lamont's Tolling Boil

Democrats put off a vote on tolling during the recently concluded legislative session because, plain and simple, they did not have the votes to pass a tolling bill.

But hope springs eternal.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz thought he may have had the votes to pass the measure in the House, but passage was still an iffy proposition.

Mark Pazniokas writes in the Hartford Business Journal, “Aresimowicz’s comments reflect a belief among lawmakers that the Lamont administration botched the rollout of tolls in February, giving Republicans, the trucking industry and others an opportunity to frame tolls as just another demand on residents.”

Speaking through his chief of staff Ryan Drajewicz, Lamont agrees that a “message rebooting” is in order. “I agree with the speaker in the sense of a reboot,” said Drajewicz. “Now that we are out of session, the boil is now coming down to a simmer and eventually cooling off. What we want to do is really go back to where we initially started, where this is too big of an issue for the administration itself to take on. What we want to do is convene leadership from both sides of the aisle.”

Being included in a decision-making venue will be a welcome change of pace for Republican Leaders Len Fasano in the Senate and Themis Klarides in the House. As his predecessor Governor Dannel Malloy had done, Lamont and Democrat leaders in the General Assembly this session made nearly all their important legislative decisions without Republican participation; this despite Lamont's insistence that his door was always open to Republicans for discussions. There is a difference however between discussions and bilateral decisions. Budget decisions this time around have been made by Democrats alone, and discussions on the budget were the result of negotiations between radical and less radical Democrat progressives.

The Day editorial board got it exactly right: “The $43.4 billion two-year state budget approved last week was a compromise deal struck within Connecticut’s divided one-party rule. The negotiations were between the moderate Democrats, headed by Gov. Ned Lamont, and the progressive Democrats, who comprise almost half of the 92 members of the House Democratic Caucus. The Republican minority, marginalized in the House and Senate by a drubbing in the 2018 elections, provided sideline criticism but were powerless to influence the outcome.”

What legislative Democrats need from Republicans is some form of assent to tolls, a new revenue stream that will allow legislators to avoid long-term permanent cuts in spending. Even commentators in the state favorable to progressive goals – ever increasing taxation that allows the redistribution of funds to progressive entities such as state employee labor unions – realize that labor unions in Connecticut, the state’s unelected fourth branch of government, have become untouchable third rails in state politics.

Thanks to former Governor Dannel Malloy, who pushed out SEBAC contracts until 2021, union honchos in Connecticut need not succumb to the blandishments of a Lamont regime, however persuasive, because the state cannot use salary and benefit reductions or layoffs as a prod in negotiations. The terms of the SEBAC 2017 AGREEMENT between STATE OF CONNECTICUT and STATE EMPLOYEES BARGAINING AGENT COALITION (SEBAC) are written in contractual, court enforced stone: “From the July 1, 2017 and through June 30, 2021, there shall be no loss of employment for any bargaining unit employee hired prior to July 1, 2017.”

Malloy’s giveaways to unions leave Lamont no instruments of force to use in his upcoming labor negotiations. In negotiations with SEBAC, Lamont soon may understand the frustration suffered by Republicans who lack the numbers in the General Assembly to force the Lamont/Looney/Aresimowicz progressive regime to deal responsibly with them.

Opposition to tolling in Connecticut is fierce and unrelenting for several reasons. Because of previous tax increases during the Malloy administration, even marginal increases in future taxes threaten the budgets of middle class taxpayers. The Lamont administration promises more revenue increases, and permanent, long-term spending cuts are nowhere present in Lamont’s budget. The Lamont administration has chosen to increase consumption taxes by “broadening the tax base,” an Orwellian euphemism that sends a signal to in and out-of-state businesses that the cost of business in Connecticut is about to increase – again -- the burden of taxation falling this time on the middle class and the working poor.

In addition, the Malloy/Looney/Aresimowicz toll scheme is a pig in a poke. No one can be certain that the recently released draft toll plan will be accepted by a federal government charged with financing gantries that reduce congestion, the whole purpose of congestion tolling. Connecticut’s tolling plan seems on the face of it to have been designed to increase state revenue; indeed, that is why the tax hungry Lamont administration recently diverted to the General Fund revenues destined to be placed in a so called transportation fund “lockbox.” Federal decision makers may not be amused by such efforts. And toll opponents certainly have caught on to the grand design and purpose of  pro-toll spendthrifts and  progressive legislators whose ONLY solution to debt caused by political mismanagement is to increase the burden of taxation, which has not in the past served to reduce deficits or to force a greedy state to pare back spending. 

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