It has been a sad sight to behold. A new Democratic governor got much of what he wanted when the first budget of his tenure passed without too much trouble. But even after the formal legislative session concluded, Ned Lamont is still flailing about, trying to find a way to increase revenues without actually increasing tax rates.
On one level, I do admire the fact that he has angered segments of both the left and the right with his position on taxes. Lamont has alienated Republicans as he has pushed to increase fees, broaden the sales tax, and institute the so-called “mansion tax.” But liberal Democrats have been frustrated by Lamont’s unwillingness to increase actual tax rates, or make the progressive income tax even more progressive. He had made that promise on the campaign trail and has kept it, realizing of course that we’ve tried that approach recently and it has done little to improve the state’s fiscal health.
But another promise Lamont made — not to push for a massive highway tolling scheme — has come back to haunt him in a big way. Lamont vowed not to support a broad-based electronic tolling regimen, promising instead to pursue tolls on those big out-of-state tractor trailers. Once in office, however, he promptly changed his mind. Does that remind you of anyone? A larger-than-life figure perhaps?
While it’s not terribly unusual for candidates for public office to do an about-face after being elected, Lamont signaled his guilt at such brazen flip-floppery by announcing his change of heart in a guest newspaper column published in Hearst CT on a Saturday morning when newspaper readership is at its lowest of the week.
The issue has sparked such anger and resentment across the political spectrum that it may wind up defining Lamont’s governorship. It’s not easy to get Democrats and Republicans in Hartford to agree on a whole lot, but enough Democrats are opposed to Lamont’s plan that it hasn’t even come up for a vote yet. When lawmakers return for a special session later this month to vote on a bond package, it looks doubtful whether tolls will even be on the agenda.
Republicans object for obvious reasons. They stand unalterably opposed to just about any attempt to increase revenues. And on the subject of transportation, which toll revenues are supposed to support, they have good reason. To wit, funds from taxes dedicated to the special transportation fund have been raided for other purposes. From 2006 and 2014 alone, $1.3 billion in revenues generated by the aptly named gross receipts tax have been used for non-transportation purposes.
Many progressive Democrats are willing to support Lamont’s tolling plan for obvious reasons, chiefly among them their desire to get their hands on more money. Other Democrats, however, view tolls as a form of regressive taxation. They are clearly feeling the heat from so-called lunch-bucket Democrats who are convinced that tolls will hit them hard, while high-income residents will hardly feel it.
You would think a politically savvy governor could find a way to resolve this. But as my colleague Ken Dixon has pointed out, Lamont is no Lowell Weicker. Like Lamont, Weicker flatly broke a campaign promise in pushing through the state’s first income tax.
Weicker used a combination of horse-trading, gamesmanship, and deal-making to ram the income tax through. Even when things looked grim, the burly maverick pressed on, employing a clever array of skills honed from a couple of years in the Army, four years in the General Assembly, 20 years in Congress (18 of them in the Senate), and a stint as first selectman of Greenwich.
Lamont is an accomplished businessman who seems like a genuinely nice man. Indeed his personality stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Dan Malloy, who had aptly nicknamed himself “The Porcupine.” During the campaign, Lamont also came across as a refreshingly honest candidate who was willing to tell us what we didn’t want to hear. Unfortunately, he has pissed most of that goodwill away. So did Weicker in 1991, but in the face of such animosity, Lamont simply lacks the skills and the natural constituencies to ram through a major revenue generator such as tolls.
I’d say his best chance is to couple a more modest tolling proposal with a cut in some other tax that hits the middle class hard. Lamont has signaled that he might be willing to cut the income tax rate on the lowest bracket. I have a better idea.
Cut the gasoline tax instead. With recent increases in gas taxes reported in 12 states, including Vermont and Rhode Island, Connecticut could cut its own tax (now the 8th highest in the nation) to counter its reputation as a state with expensive gas. This would accomplish two things: it would provide relief to middle-income Connecticut residents paying the new tolls and it might even tempt those out of state drivers to stop and gas up in Connecticut — something almost all of them currently avoid. So the gas tax cut might even stimulate out-of-state sales that would at least partially offset the loss of revenue.
At the same time, we could leverage the tolls paid by Connecticut drivers with those of out-of-state drivers, who, according to administration estimates, would be paying up to 40% of the new tolls. In other words, this could be a win-win. Or to the extent that it could save Lamont’s political hide, a win-win-win.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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