GOP, Lamont administration beef up closing arguments on tolls

With Gov. Ned Lamont expected to roll out a more detailed tolls proposal next week, Republican legislative leaders broadened their sales pitch Friday on the alternative.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate effectively turned the first two hours of a Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee hearing into a news conference for “Prioritize Progress,” the GOP plan to rebuild Connecticut’s aging infrastructure without tolls.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, still focused on the lack of tolls in their plan. But they placed equal emphasis Friday on the huge head start their approach would bring to rebuilding the state’s highways, bridges and rail lines.

“We don’t have to wait to begin construction. We don’t have to wait to see what the (toll) numbers are,” Fasano said.

“We have an alternative that is more responsible and immediately funds transportation in this state,” Klarides added.

The Department of Transportation’s capital program currently pairs about $750 million per year in state borrowing with $750 million in matching federal grants — about $500 million less than DOT officials want.

Republicans would reassign another $600 million in annual borrowing currently dedicated to nontransportation programs.

Between now and 2024 — the year Lamont projects toll revenues would become available — the GOP plan would invest a whopping $2.4 billion more in transportation than the Democratic governor’s plan, Fasano said.

“That will give this state what they haven’t had for a long time,” Klarides said, an end to a transportation system that’s “woefully under-funded year after year.”

But the Lamont administration fired back Friday, saying the GOP plan is no transportation panacea.

Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget chief, said the Special Transportation Fund — which pays off the principal and interest on state borrowing — is headed for insolvency by 2025, absent more revenue, even under the Republican’s proposal.

And using borrowing usually reserved for school construction and economic development to instead fix highways and bridges would exacerbate another huge problem, she said.

Surging pension and other debt costs already consume nearly 30 percent of the budget’s General Fund, compared with 10 percent two decades ago. This is siphoning resources away from education, health care, social services and municipal aid.

Prioritize Progress — issuing bonds for transportation projects that are paid off with General Fund resources — only would intensify this budget squeeze, McCaw said.

The Lamont administration has said it is open to compromise with the GOP, and would consider increasing resources for transportation work between now and 2024 — provided toll revenues could take over from that point.

The finance committee is expected to vote next week on a tolls bill that includes some new elements from the administration, including a plan to smooth the transition until toll receipts arrive.

The Democrats’ plan focuses on a reliable, sustainable revenue source, 40 percent of which will be paid for by out-of-state drivers, and offers discounts to in-state drivers, as well as ways to mitigate the impact on low-income individuals and families,” said Colleen Flanagan Johnson, Lamont’s senior advisor. “We’ve heard of the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ but ‘Prioritize Borrowing,’ in reality, represents the ‘Highway to Hell.’”

But Klarides said Lamont and his fellow Democrats who back tolls fail to see the big picture, and their proposals bear that out.

Besides tolls, the administration also backs a gradual increase in the minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $15 per hour. Critics argue either could drive up business costs, and inflate prices of basic goods such as groceries and clothing.

What happens if both are approved at the same time?

“We happen to be in a very dire fiscal time,” Klarides said. “When are we in this legislature going to give taxpayers a break? When are we going to give businesses a break?”

Keith M. Phaneuf is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2019 © The Connecticut Mirror.

kphaneuf@ctmirror.org

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