House Speaker: Tolls ‘Inevitable,’ Hospital Tax And Pension Plan Unlikely
Hartford Courant, March 24, 2017
By Christopher Keating
Saying it is "absolutely insane'' to continue allowing out-of-state drivers to cut through Connecticut for free, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said Thursday that highway tolls are "inevitable."
Noting that he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City for a flight, Aresimowicz said that he paid $8 in tolls each way to cross the bridge between the Bronx and Queens.
A credit on the state income tax would be available for Connecticut residents who work out of state and are constantly going through the electronic tolls. While compromises could change the final details of the bill, Aresimowicz said discounts could also be available for Connecticut residents traveling within the state for those who buy a transponder in the state.
"I believe tolls are inevitable here in Connecticut,'' he said. "It's beyond a fairness issue.''
The legislature's transportation committee voted 19-16 on strict party lines last week in favor of tolls, but the measure still requires approval by the full House of Representatives and Senate.
But Republicans spoke strongly against tolls and said the measure will be difficult to pass in the state Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican who often drives 88 miles from Hartford to his home, said that trying to give Connecticut residents a credit on their income tax would be a complicated, bureaucratic nightmare with the state tax department.
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"Logistically, that would be near impossible,'' Frantz said. "Tolls would be bad for Connecticut. It's just another tax.''
Tolls have been politically controversial for years, and the legislature has not approved tolls in the three decades since the old-fashioned tollbooths were dismantled after a crash in 1983 that killed seven people on Interstate 95 in Stratford.
Tolls could raise as much as $18.3 billion in revenue by 2040 – with at least 30 percent paid by out-of-state drivers and 24 percent paid by heavy trucks, according to estimates by a special panel that studied the issue. Supporters said the state needs to fix its crumbling transportation infrastructure and serves as an anomaly as the only state on the Eastern seaboard without tolls.
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said that avoiding the tolls would be relatively easy in a small state, especially with more than 40 exits on Interstate 95 between Greenwich and New Haven.
"To make this work, you have to toll 95, 91, and the Merritt Parkway,'' Fasano said. "Otherwise, people can get off and get back on because Route 1 parallels 95 from Greenwich to New London. You have to make sure that you put these in strategic places.''
With cars and trucks avoiding the tolls, Fasano predicted that the state would not earn as much money as expected - thus forcing the state to charge higher tolls.
Despite pushing for a 30-year, $100 billion transportation plan, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not issued a detailed plan for tolls. Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said, "The priority is ensuring that taxpayer dollars intended for transportation, actually go towards transportation. We think the best way to get this done is by passing a constitutional lockbox for transportation funding.''
No immediate moves are expected as state officials have estimated it could take as many as three to four years for planning, taking public bids, and installing overhead cameras and transponders that would handle an EZ Pass on the state highways. For those without an EZ Pass, the cameras would take a photo of the license plate, and then a bill would be sent to the car owner's address.
With the lagtime to start the system, the tolls would not help the legislature to immediately close the budget gap that is projected at $1.7 billion for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. In addition, many legislators want the money raised by tolls to be set aside for transportation purposes only through a lock box.
In a wide-ranging discussion with the editorial board, Aresimowicz said he does not have the votes to pass either of two major proposals by Malloy - the plan to force cities and towns to pay one-third of the employer costs for teachers' pensions and the proposal to allow municipalities to collect real estate taxes from non-profit hospitals for the first time.
"The hospital tax proposal in its current form would not pass the General Assembly,'' Aresimowicz said. "The hospitals are willing to invest in the cities and invest in some workforce development. What they're not willing to do is continue to be the place where we go every time that we need money.''
Hospital administrators have strongly criticized Malloy's plan and have tangled with the administration in the past regarding financial issues. The hospitals are major employers, and they also have some political clout at the Capitol because many legislators do not want to pass legislation that is objectionable to the hospitals.
In the same way, lawmakers have not embraced Malloy's cost-shift regarding teacher pensions that would cost municipalities more than $400 million per year.
Malloy's idea "is not a proposal that has political viability right now,'' Aresimowicz said. "We don't have the votes. In one year, we can't do it. I don't have the votes in the House for it.''
But Donnelly said the system needs to be changed so that the state is not paying 100 percent of the employer cost when the towns pay nothing.
"The system is not fair and we must begin to address imbalance,'' she said.