It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Who wants to actually work? So maybe we all ought to just chill out about making up laws and stuff and just … relax.
The lovely afterglow of the end of the session hasn’t faded yet, so it’s hard for lawmakers to gin up much enthusiasm for special sessions on all the items that didn’t quite make it to the finish line. Two of the most talked-about bills left on the table were the legalization of recreational marijuana and the placing of tolls on Connecticut highways. As of right now, it’s doubtful that the votes exist to pass either should a special session be called.
Therefore, it makes total sense to just chuck them in the trash and try again in a few years, right? I mean, it’s not like it’s the end of the world if these things don’t get done.
And, sure, that’s true for now. In the short term, not much is going to change if we take the safe, comfortable road on tolls and marijuana. It’s what happens after the current budget cycle that I’m worried about.
Tolls are by far the most important issue the legislature needs to consider. By now the reasons should be patently obvious: our transportation system is in dangerous disrepair, and we need money to pay to rebuild and expand it. If done right, tolls could collect enough money from both in-state and out-of-state drivers to radically remake the system.
Functional highways and rail lines are the bedrock upon which our economy rests. It must be easy not just to get around the state but to get to New York and Boston if we want to be competitive.
There’s another reason to put up tolls, too, and that’s yet another ticking time bomb of a budget.
Connecticut’s budget reality hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years: climbing pension and debt service costs, a whole raft of bad decisions by earlier legislatures, and stagnant or declining revenue have all been combined in the unholy cauldron of doom to open up scarily large deficits. This year the deficit was tamed by increasing sales taxes, a hospital tax deal, some healthcare cuts, and stronger-than-expected revenues thanks to our state finally getting a little piece of the rest of the country’s economic boom.
But the picture for the future isn’t so rosy. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis examined the budget and projected that the state’s fiscal problems aren’t even close to being solved. If conditions remain as they are, OFA estimates a $972 million deficit in 2022, a $1.34 billion deficit in 2023, and a $1.2 billion deficit in 2024.
That’s depressingly familiar. OFA always predicts deficits, and they always show up. Worse, the economy has been sending signals that a recession might not be too far off. If that happens, those deficit numbers could be much, much worse, and investment in transportation would dry up.
What could blunt the impact of a recession? Construction, and lots of it. Tolls would not only help us turn our old clunker of a transportation system into something world-class, they would also help the state create jobs, economic activity, and revenue during a time when it may be very necessary.
The other thing that could, ah, blunt the impact of a recession and a budget deficit would be legal, regulated, and taxable marijuana sales.
The sad thing is that we’ve already missed the boat, Massachusetts already legalized marijuana and is bringing in revenue from it. There’s a whole new economy springing up north of the border, and I can guarantee you that Connecticut money is flowing there because we didn’t follow suit.
Illinois has passed their own bill legalizing marijuana while addressing some of the social justice issues to which the war on drugs gave rise. We should use it as a blueprint.
This has to happen in a special session. No matter what the governor thinks, this isn’t going to be a referendum. Massachusetts passed marijuana legalization through citizens petitioning to get it on the ballot, and then approving it in a referendum. We simply don’t do things that way here. Our constitution doesn’t allow for any sort of statewide referendum that isn’t a constitutional amendment.
Legalization is popular, so a marijuana amendment probably would pass. That means that the legislative fight to get the amendment on the ballot would be the one that matters. If we’re going to go through all of that to get a constitutional amendment, then why not just pass a bill?
Lawmakers can’t waste these summer months doing nothing, then. We need action on tolls and marijuana if we want to cement the fragile progress we’ve made.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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