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Has toll debate launched new movement in Connecticut

Maybe they'll only start looking foolish about something else now, but thanks to Governor Lamont's loss of patience with his party's inept leaders in the General Assembly, he and Democratic legislators at least can stop looking foolish about tolls.

What a disaster it has been, but a potentially instructive one.

In general people didn't want tolls − and not just because people dislike taxes but also because many realized that revenue collected in the name of transportation had been diverted to general purposes and likely would be diverted again, and because people are starting to think that taxes are just too high in Connecticut for the public services received. (Costly as they are, retirement benefits for government employees are not really public services.)

Of course, the decisive factor was that skeptical people were mobilized by a remarkable grassroots movement that came out of nowhere, No Tolls CT. It became more frightening to legislators than the usual special interests, the government employee unions augmented this time by construction companies and their unions.

Having put the tolls issue aside at last, the governor and the legislature's Democratic majority now are free to enact their many proposed initiatives for the legislative session just begun. Few if any will be relevant to the state's big problems, but none is likely to be as embarrassing as what the Democrats have just put themselves through with tolls. Since there will be a little more bonding for transportation, there will be a little less bonding for legislators' pet projects in their districts, but the disappointment legislators feel about that will be far outweighed by the relief from escaping a vote for tolls.

Much more important for the state's future is what becomes of the grassroots anti-tolls movement. Having triumphed improbably, will the movement fade away or evolve into something bigger, pursuing broader issues to bring state government to account? Will the movement mobilize against other tax increases and even seek tax cuts, clamoring against the exploitation and waste that characterize state government?

The campaign against tolls showed that the governor and Democratic legislators never audited the transportation spending they said needed bolstering. They dishonestly denied that transportation funds had been diverted to general purposes, and indeed they sought tolls precisely so they would not have to economize elsewhere in state government in favor of transportation.

Preventing tolls is wonderful, but what about the failure of expensive state government policies to achieve their nominal objectives, and the success of policies that profit special interests at public expense? That's why Connecticut badly needs a mass organization that will target the governor and legislators with the most politically uncomfortable questions.

Why, for example, does the compensation of unionized government employees, guaranteed by contract, take precedence over everything else in state government? Why is there always money for raises and pensions but never enough for group homes for mentally handicapped adults? Why has government been increasing financial grants to municipal school systems nearly every year when enrollments have been falling and student performance has lagged? Why does state government keep increasing financial grants to cities only to see them become poorer and more dysfunctional? Why does welfare policy only perpetuate poverty?

Tolls may be beaten today, but the partisans of the failing status quo will be contriving to get more money for it tomorrow.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.



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