Norwich legislators discuss state issues at forum

Norwich — Three local legislators held a frank discussion with more than 20 residents and public officials Wednesday on topics ranging from the prospect of installing tolls in the state to improving education funding and regionalization.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Reps. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, answered questions and offered opinions on issues facing the legislature when the spring session starts next Wednesday.

The topic of tolls dominated the discussion, and Osten came armed with maps and statistics on revenues raised in surrounding states by tolls, including $395 million raised last year in Massachusetts and $21 million in Rhode Island.

“And people ask me why does Massachusetts have a lower gas tax,” Osten said.

Former Norwich Alderman H. Tucker Braddock said placing tolls on interior Connecticut roads would hurt state residents who already pay state taxes. He favored tolls on highways at state borders to capture traffic entering and leaving the state.

But Osten said the state cannot enact only border tolls without losing 80 percent federal reimbursement on interstate construction projects.

The three lawmakers said if the legislature approved adding tolls “tomorrow,” it would only be to authorize the state Department of Transportation to develop a plan for adding tolls to Connecticut roads, including where they might be located and how discounts for state residents or even segments of residents, such as the elderly, could be applied. That plan would need state and federal approval before tolls are put in place. Osten estimated it would take three to five years before tolls would be operational.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Wednesday announced an outline of a transportation plan that would have electronic tolls in the state by the 2022-23 fiscal year.

In response to a question on whether toll revenue would be restricted to paying for transportation projects, Osten argued Wednesday that it’s not true that the Connecticut legislature has “raided” the state Special Transportation Fund over the years. Osten said the legislature has done the opposite, sending more money — including revenue from the gross receipts tax and a half-percent of the sales tax — into the transportation fund rather than taking money from it.

Osten said part of the problem is that Connecticut uses the Special Transportation Fund for much more than road projects, including rail, transit buses, including Southeast Area Transit, and even the small vehicle ferries on the Connecticut River. Other states restrict special transportation funds to roads and bridges, she said.

Riley said residents will get the chance to vote in November on a proposed constitutional amendment putting a so-called “lock box” on the transportation fund to prevent funds from being used for things other than transportation infrastructure.

Resident Shiela Hayes asked the three legislators if they agreed with the recent state Supreme Court ruling that the state is adequately funding public education. Ryan said a state task force is studying the Education Cost Sharing grant formula.

Osten again took to the offensive and said the state needs to revamp the system. She said Greenwich, with a town property tax rate of 11.2 mills and average home prices above $1 million received an 8 percent increase in its ECS grant, albeit a low dollar total. She questioned why any towns with local tax rates of less than 15 mills receive any state education funding, including school construction grants.

Montville, which is in her district and Ryan’s, lost $1.5 million in education funding this year, Osten said, and most towns not in the Alliance District system saw cuts in education grants this year.

Under that scenario, Osten said, Montville should “tank” its state performance tests and become one of the Alliance Districts, which receive additional money to improve test scores.

Residents participating in the discussion urged the legislators to push towns into more regionalization of services.

Ryan said when the governor cut town grants during last year’s budget impasse, two local towns were discussing ways to share costs of services.

“When the money came back,” Ryan said, “they stopped talking.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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