HARTFORD, CT — The House was unable to find the votes for electronic tolls, but they found enough support for a resolution that attempts to dedicate certain revenue streams toward transportation improvements.
The so-called transportation lockbox proposal will be placed on the ballot for voters in 2018 if it’s approved by the Senate. The House approved the bill 101 to 50. Twenty-two Republicans joined all 79 Democrats in voting for the measure.
The step was necessary in order to win Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s approval for increasing any revenue streams earmarked for improving transportation. Malloy has said he won’t support additional revenue for transportation until a constitutional lockbox is in place.
The last time the House approved a lockbox was on Dec. 8, 2015. That year the House voted 100 to 40. Even though it passed, it failed to win the super majority it needed to get on the ballot in 2016. If the Senate approves the same resolution again, then it will be on the ballot in 2018.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the Democratic definition of a lockbox has a nice lock on the front, but big holes in the back.
“We appreciate the effort, it just doesn’t go far enough,” Klarides said.
She said “good enough isn’t good enough in this situation.”
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said the money in the special transportation fund continues to be swept to deal with the fiscal mismanagement of the state.
“This lock box is not locked at all. In fact it could be opened with a hairpin,” Devlin said.
Devlin was one of 26 Republicans who supported the same lockbox in 2015.
Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, introduced an amendment he felt would make the proposal stronger because it would define the revenue that goes into the fund and the money that goes out of the fund.
He said the “temptation to grab this money is too strong” when we’ve overspent on other things. He said putting it in the constitution doesn’t make it a lockbox if the General Assembly still has the key.
Dubitsky said he took a lot of heat for voting against the lockbox in 2015, but he felt the amendment would make it stronger.
Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said the underlying lockbox proposal would allow for revenue diversions before the money gets to the fund.
“I believe the governor likes our lockbox better than the majority’s,” O’Dea said.
But amending the underlying resolution would require the House and Senate to approve it by a supermajority if it was going to get on the ballot by 2018.
The Democrats, who still hold a slim majority over the Republicans, weren’t going to let that happen.
“The fact is, modernizing our transportation networks is critical to the future economic health of our state,” Malloy said. “For too long, the state failed to make the necessary upgrades and maintenance on our roads, bridges, and railways and we are paying the price today for this neglect.”
He said it will be nice to get the issue on the table for Connecticut voters.
“People deserve to know that if they’re paying fees, and costs, and taxes that are associated with transportation that it’s actually going to go into transportation,” Malloy said Tuesday outside the state Capitol.
In order to win Democratic votes back in 2015, Malloy agreed to change the language he had initially proposed for a lockbox. However, that cost him Republican votes and ultimately the ability to get it on the ballot in 2016.
Asked if he preferred stricter language, Malloy said, “In this building people tend to make perceived perfect the enemy of better … Right now our constitution doesn’t say anything.”
Some lawmakers opposed the lockbox because they felt it was the first step toward electronic tolls. Immediately after passing the lockbox the House called an electronic toll study bill for debate. But after an hour of discussion, debate on tolls was tabled because the House didn’t have enough support to pass it.
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, made a passionate argument about the need for congestion tolls on Connecticut’s busiest highways. Guerrera had watered down the legislation by asking the Department of Transportation to study the issue and come back to the legislature with a proposal about where they would construct the electronic gantries.
“It would tell you how much the tolls would cost. It would tell the members where they are situated, and also determine the amount of monies we would receive,” Guerrera said.
He said tolls are the only way to replenish the special transportation fund, which is used to help repair roads and bridges.
Klarides said she appreciates Guerrera’s passion for the issue, but she believes they have money to spend on transportation.
“We choose to spend it in ways that are not effective for the state of Connecticut,” Klarides said.
But Guerrera sees it differently.
“We cannot afford to have another bridge collapse. To have a piece of concrete fall on a vehicle,” Guerrera said.
He said he doesn’t want to play “this political football game.”
The gas tax isn’t raising the necessary revenue and Guerrera believes tolls “is the fairest way of doing this.”
Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, said what he’s seen of proposals for tolls on Connecticut highways is asking too much of Connecticut residents.
He said all this bill will do is “lead to more funds coming out of hardworking people’s pockets.”
Debate on tolls was tabled after House Majority Leader Matt Ritter pointed out that every year Guerrera is able to convince more lawmakers that implementing tolls is the responsible thing to do.
“I think tolls are inevitable in the state of Connecticut,” Ritter said. “In five years, or eight years or one year, you will be right and people of Connecticut will support you for what you did.”