Toll Fight on the Horizon [CT Post]

July 13, 2015

CT Post

If Connecticut’s border communities appeared to have dodged highway tolls in this legislative session, well — not so fast.

Lawmakers could get called back to Hartford in the fall for yet another special session, this time to deal with funding a $100 billion long-term transportation overhaul prescribed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Malloy is seeking a constitutional amendment ensuring that the money in the state’s Special Transportation Fund cannot be spent in other areas. The fund is set to take in $1.5 billion in revenues from gas and petroleum taxes, as well as a portion of the sales tax, for the current fiscal year.

The “lock box” measure is expected to rekindle the raging debate over tolls, which have been absent from state highways for 30 years. This would be the second special session of the year, with lawmakers summoned back to the Capitol during the final week of June to hammer out the details of a controversial and tax-laden $40 billion, two-year budget.

“I think part of that conversation will be electronic tolling or congestion pricing,” said state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. “I think electronic tolling isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to fix it, but it’s a big part of getting money that’s going to be put into this lock box.”

Mark Bergman, a spokesman for Malloy, said the discussion of tolls is premature until a working group created by the governor to look into funding options finishes its work.

“I think it’s way too early to get into that,” Bergman said. “The immediate goal is to make sure a constitutional amendment is adopted on the ballot in 2016. It might require a special session.”

Along the border, however, elected officials are already cringing.

“I think every resident of this state ought to be terrified that they go back in special session for anything, let alone creating a mythical lock box that they’ll never honor and that they’ll never respect,” said Mark Boughton, Danbury’s longtime Republican mayor. “We think it’s going to do tremendous damage to an already fragile economy here in western Connecticut.”

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, a Transportation Committee member, said toll foes like himself have their work cut out for them.

“Eventually, (Rep. Guerrera is) going to get his way, I think, if things continue on down that road,” Frantz said. “But it’s not going to come without a battle because we will lay ourselves down on the track in opposition to tolls. It’s unfair. It’s dangerous. It’s bad for commerce, and tolls, in general, are just another tax on the people of Connecticut, as well as out-of-staters.”

Frantz voted against a bill that passed during the regular session this year that directs the state Department of Transportation to come up with a tolling system plan.

Unlike some fellow Republicans, Frantz supports the lock box measure.

“There’s too much monkey business when it comes to shifting money around at the state level,” said Frantz, who also represents parts of Stamford and New Canaan.

Right now, there is a statutory limit on how transportation funds are spent, but the governor and the Legislature can override it. With Malloy committing the state to widening Interstates 95 and 84, there is concern that funding could be diverted by future administrations to wipe away budget deficits.

“We need that constitutional amendment to show the public that we’re serious about this,” said Garrett Eucalitto, Malloy’s undersecretary for transportation policy and planning.

There are two ways of going about getting a constitutional amendment passed. The first would require a three-quarters majority of both the House and Senate when lawmakers reconvene for the next regular session in early 2016, followed by a referendum of voters later that fall. Alternatively, it would take a simple majority in the Legislature if the amendment came up for a vote in a special session and again in a regular session. A referendum would still be required in the second case.

“I have always been slightly offended by the ‘lock box’ idea, and I use that in quotes, because we have earmarked many funds, and those funds never make it where they’re supposed to go in their entirety,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.

Said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, “The Special Transportation Fund is not a bank. But sadly it’s been used like one for years.”

Transfers out of the fund have become commonplace. Money was moved out of the fund and used for other purposes in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2014. Eucalitto said while $76 million was shifted to the General Fund, $190 million was moved into the Transportation Fund, with the state allocating more of the petroleum tax to the special account.