Keith M. Phaneuf
While Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to toll passenger cars bogged down this year due to multiple obstacles, one hurdle that generated no banner headlines — yet was just as daunting — centered on Connecticut’s poor.
More specifically, Lamont — a wealthy Greenwich businessman — and progressive fellow Democrats disagree about the fairness of Connecticut’s tax system.
The governor and his fellow Democrats are crafting a plan now centered on tolling only trucks, acknowledging that charging fees on cars was a political nightmare.
But that doesn’t mean every legislator wary of tolls faced the same dilemma. And those in urban centers, and in rural poor eastern Connecticut, said they would have been forced to ask some constituents to contribute more than they could afford.
Even the scaled-back tolling proposal Lamont offered earlier this fall would have asked many households to pay $400 to $800 annually in toll charges to help rebuild the state’s aging, overcrowded transportation system.
But critics noted that would effectively wipe out one of Connecticut’s most effective anti-poverty programs, the state Earned Income Tax Credit — an initiative that already has taken several hits in its first decade of existence.
And while officials did increase the state’s minimum wage, tolling passenger cars would have followed an array of smaller tax and fee increases lawmakers dumped on low-to-middle income families last spring — in part to accommodate Lamont’s push not to raise income tax rates on the wealthy.
“Often we don’t develop policy holistically and look at everything in its totality,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.Rojas, whose committee had endorsed a tax surcharge on investment earnings for households with overall incomes above $500,000 per year, said Connecticut still relies too heavily on municipal property taxes and other levies that are highly regressive in nature. “That’s the unfortunate reality of our overall tax system,” he said. “It would be insane not to talk about a sliding scale system” for tolls, said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, longtime co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.
Legislators passed a law gradually raising the minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $15 by late 2023 — it reached $11 in October — and made other investments in job training and development to combat the extreme wealth inequality in Connecticut, Walker said.
“We’re talking about trying to expand and improve the workforce,” she said, adding that while the state needs to invest in transportation, paying highway tolls would be harder on poor and middle class drivers than wealthy ones.
The last plan Lamont offered included rates for cars ranging from 40 to 80 cents per gantry, provided the driver had purchased a Connecticut E-Z Pass. Toll gantries would be placed near highway bridges most in need of repairs, and toll rates would vary based upon the cost of upgrades each bridge would need.
The governor also had stipulated that no driver would pay twice per day for passing the same gantry.
Still, a vehicle crossing one gantry on the way to work, and a second gantry on the way home, would pay between 80 cents and $1.60 per day.
That’s $4 to 8 per week, and just over $200 to $400 per year.If a family has two adults driving separate cars to work — each crossing one gantry each way — the bill doubles again, falling between $400 and $800 per year.The 2011 legislature and then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy created the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, originally equal to 30% of the federal EITC, to help poor working families save more. Since then it has been whittled down to 23% of the federal benefit.
The EITC is a refundable tax credit, meaning filers can claim the credit as long as they are working, even if they make so little they owe no state income taxes.
But because of the high cost of living in Connecticut, advocates say the program really isn’t about helping poor families save money. Instead, it simply helps them catch up on bills that have become overwhelming.
The state EITC returned $118.3 million to an estimated 194,000 working poor people this year, according to nonpartisan analysts. That’s an average refund of $610 per household.
Supporters of the program say the refunds typically are spent paying off winter heating bills, buying groceries or making overdue car repairs.
The Connecticut Association for Human Services, one of the leading advocates for the EITC, has not analyzed the potential impact of tolls on the working poor.
But “it certainly would be very harmful to low-income families,” said the association’s executive director, Robert Blakely, who added that for people receiving the EITC, a $400-to-$800 tolling bill could be a real challenge. “It’s about buying shoes and making those necessary car repairs.”A household with one adult and one child could not earn more than $40,320 last year and qualify for the EITC, according to the Department of Revenue Services. A married couple with one child could not make more than $46,010.Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based policy research group, is planning its next annual state budget forum — set for Jan. 15 — around issues of income and wealth inequality.
Emily Byrne, executive director of Connecticut Voices, said her group also has not done a specific analysis of tolling proposals. But Byrne said, “we certainly would encourage any tolling plan to look at the unintended consequences to low- and middle-income families. It’s about making sure everyday living is not becoming more expensive.”
Several of the proposed toll gantries — not surprisingly — were focused on heavily populated and heavily traveled areas, urban centers where poverty is a major issue.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, said the passage of a $15-per-hour minimum wage was crucial for her district, and she was concerned that tolling passenger cars could undermine that effort.
“That’s a tough concern for me,” she said. “One of my number one priorities has been issues that impact the people who live paycheck to paycheck. It’s something we don’t focus on enough. Every time we get a little bit ahead at helping people who are living on the margins, we seem to go in the opposite direction.”
Some legislators said that happened this past spring as Lamont pressed his fellow Democrats to kill the proposed income tax surcharge on wealthy households’ investment earnings. This was projected to raise $264 million per year and was a key part of the finance committee’s plan to close a major projected hole in the budget.
And while the surcharge was eventually scrapped, some legislators noted there were several tax hikes that remained — aimed more at low- and middle-income households.
A 1% sales tax surcharge on restaurant food and other prepared meals.
Small increases on the alcoholic beverages tax and the Rideshare transit fee.
And a new 10-cent charge on plastic bags.
In addition, a previously approved income tax cut for college graduates with student loan debt was repealed before they could take effect.And Lamont deferred one of his main campaign promises — expanding the largest income tax credit, one that helps low- and middle-income families cover local property taxes.
Taxpayers without children lost access to that credit, which provides up to $200 per filer with relief.
Lamont pledged last fall to restore eligibility to that group, and the $53 million in cumulative annual relief it lost, in the second year of his first two-year budget. But eligibility was not restored.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, acknowledged the difficult challenge some of his colleagues from Connecticut’s poorest communities faced when considering earlier proposals to toll cars.
Ritter didn’t speculate on whether that would have prevented a tolling initiative involving cars from passing in the House, but he did say it had begun to weigh on some members of his caucus.
“I think the last few months has made me think that we may have lost a few people,” he said.
Transportation finance plan could lead to breakthrough on state bonding impasse
HARTFORD — The potential Democratic deal on transportation funding could lead to a breakthrough in the related impasse on state bonding.
Gov. Ned Lamont has made an agreement on a two-year bonding package contingent on an agreement on a transportation financing plan after disagreement over highway tolls blocked either from moving forward in the legislature.
An end of the deadlock could be near now that Lamont and Democratic majority leaders have united behind a truck-only tolls plan, provided House and Senate Democrats can muster enough votes to approve highway charges on commercial trucks.
This newfound consensus on tolls increases the prospects of a universal resolution on transportation funding and bonding from the Lamont administration’s perspective.
“We think there is now a great opportunity to end the year on a high note,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s director of communications.
THE BONDING PACKAGE is basically Lamont’s only remaining leverage since he signed a two-year, $43.3 billion budget after bipartisan opposition thwarted his first attempt to pass an electronic tolling plan as governor.
Legislators are eager to get a bonding bill done. Towns and cities are, too, because the holdup is delaying bond-funded state grants. State bonding also supports community, housing and economic development assistance.
AdvertisementAs chairman, the governor also controls the agenda. Lamont announced in February that he was putting Connecticut on a “debt diet” to trim back borrowing and reduce long-term debt obligations.
Lamont has only convened the State Bond Commission three times this year. The last meeting was Sept. 17. Since then, he has canceled two more meetings, and the final scheduled meeting of 2019 is Dec. 13.
The first-term Democrat initially pledged to limit general obligation bonding to $960 million annually, a reduction of nearly 40% from the roughly $1.6 billion average for the past six years. He has indicated a willingness to exceed that self-imposed cap to win support for tolls.
THE DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP is also optimistic that the understanding reached with Lamont on transportation funding will lead to the adoption of a bonding bill.
“He was obviously unwilling to have a bond act go into effect before a transportation package was fully settled. Now, there is an opportunity to have the two move forward in tandem,” said Senate Pres
He said a final bonding deal will require Lamont’s assurance that the State Bond Commission will approve the funding priorities of the two Democratic caucuses. This is not something that can be written into legislation.
“We know what is more crucial than the bond act is what goes through the bond commission, and virtually very little has gone through the bond commission this year,” Looney said. “There are concerns that without agreements on bond commission action that the bond act itself is virtually meaningless.”
Under Lamont, the bond commission has approved $876.5 million in general obligation bonds this calendar year, including $301 million for school construction projects.
LAMONT AND DEMOCRATS initially were about $680 million apart on bonding for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years going into the final few weeks of the 2019 legislative session.
Lamont proposed authorizing $944.1 million in general obligation bonds for the 2020 fiscal year and $976.5 million for 2021, while the Democrat-led Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee approved nearly $1.4 billion for 2020 and slightly more than $1.2 billion for 2021.
The governor proposed authorizing $776.6 million in special tax obligation bonds for transportation in 2020 and $782.4 million for 2021. He also proposed revenue bonds of $84 million for Clean Water Fund loans in 2021. The Democrats on the finance committee adopted Lamont’s recommendations
As an interim measure, the Lamont administration in July offered to raise its borrowing limit to $1.3 billion contingent on $100 million per year of that general obligation bonding being dedicated to finance transportation infrastructure projects.
Democratic leaders were open to designating an additional $100 million for transportation, but held firm on their 2020 and 2021 bottom lines because they also wanted to fund other priorities for House and Senate Democrats.ident Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.Neither Lamont nor the Democratic leadership accepted the other’s offer. Over the last several months, House and Senate Republicans have complained of being shut out of the negotiations on a bonding package and kept in the dark.
State Pier playing a role in major expansion at EB
State Pier is playing a role in the major expansion at Electric Boat's Groton to support the building of a new class of ballistic missile submarines.
Gateway, which operates State Pier, is working with Skanska Trevcon II JV, a contractor hired by EB, to manage the delivery of cargo being used in the construction of a new building where the ballistic missile submarines will be assembled.
When completed, the 200,000 square foot building will be home to 1,400 workers.
Beginning in early December, casing pipes, rebar cages, and other construction materials will be delivered and staged on two acres of land at State Pier. Gateway will manage the receiving, loading, and securing of cargo on barges for delivery across the Thames River to EB. The company said a press release that more than 3,000 man hour wages will be dedicated to the project using the longshoremen who work at the pier.
Gateway is expected to offer support through the first quarter of 2020.
Poquonnock Road reconstruction project planned
Groton — A project is being designed to improve a stretch of Poquonnock Road in the City of Groton, starting at the Five Corners area and ending just before the Rainville Avenue intersection.
"The purpose of the roadway and sidewalk reconstruction project is to rectify flaws in the existing condition of the subgrade, to adjust the roadway profile so that the functionality of the Clarence B. Sharp overpass is improved and to improve pedestrian safety and access through the corridor," according to a project overview.
The road's pavement was installed over a rail line, "much of which remained in place when the roadway was constructed," according to the description.
"The subgrade has been failing, causing resurfacing and non-full depth reconstruction efforts to fail," it states. "Construction performed on the westerly side of Poquonnock Road, several years ago, revealed a strata of cast in place concrete, which will require heavy equipment to remove."
The City of Groton has received a letter from the state with a commitment to fund the project at $2,185,600, said City of Groton Public Works Services Coordinator Heidi Comeau. BETA Group, Inc. is designing and engineering the project.
During a public information meeting on Monday evening, BETA Group presented preliminary plans. The plans will include replacing and repairing sidewalks as necessary, including replacing substandard ramps in locations to meet state Department of Transportation guidelines, according to the description and presentation.
Jason Ouimet, project manager at BETA Group, said the clearance underneath the Clarence B. Sharp overpass is substandard so it will be increased to a little over 14 and a half feet. That will be achieved through slightly lowering the roadway grade, according to the project description.
The proposal includes installing a new crosswalk with a rapid flashing beacon at the former Brandegee Avenue as a solution to improve pedestrian safety in that area, he said.
The plans further call for minor drainage improvements. BETA Group will be designing the road to meet a 25-year storm, he said.
Comeau said the project is currently in the 30 to 35 percent design stage, with final design plans anticipated to be submitted to the state in January. The goal is to advertise the construction bids in February, according to the draft calendar.
Jay Bertoli, senior associate with BETA Group, said the goal would be to start construction as soon as the project is awarded, which could be as early as April or May. He said he estimates the project would be done in 150 calendar days, but a detailed construction timeline will be prepared as part of the next phase.
City Mayor Keith Hedrick said the city plans to provide residents and businesses in the area with a schedule of events during construction so they can understand the potential impacts.
There are no plans for detours during construction, said Ouimet. Bertoli said they plan to incorporate a flagman or potentially a local police officer to direct alternating one-way traffic in areas.