If you for some reason wanted an indication of whether Ned Lamont was going to run for another term, the budget he released last Wednesday should satisfy you. It’s a conservative budget that relies heavily on federal aid and the Rainy Day Fund in order to avoid raising taxes. It also ditches the idea of tolls entirely in favor of slapping a mileage fee on truckers. In short, this is the sort of budget the white, suburban middle class will feel nothing at all about.
So yeah, he’s running.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, plenty of people are complaining. There are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are rightly angry that the budget actually freezes Education Cost Sharing grants to towns at their current levels in order to let one-time federal stimulus money make up the rest. There was also no embrace of a public option for health care, just a plea for those well-known gushing rivers of compassion, insurance companies, to help the neediest with premiums.
Perhaps the most talked-about point in the governor’s budget was his call to legalize marijuana. In the past that would have put off the kinds of voters Lamont might need to win an election, but legalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position over the past couple of years. Lamont risks very little by supporting legalization, especially as other nearby states who have already legalized rake in the cash.
This is a very different budget than we saw in 2019, when Lamont put the state on a “debt diet” and pushed hard for passenger car tolls on our highways. The debt diet was not popular with lawmakers. Tolls, on the other hand, were absolutely loathed by almost everyone.
Both of those things are gone now. The loss of tolls is what gets me the most.
I really wanted to see those gantries go up. Not because I love paying money to the state! No, it’s because you and I know that Connecticut needs to invest heavily in our transportation infrastructure in order to, for example, not fall apart completely.
The tolls would have made it more costly for out-of-state drivers than in-state ones to use our roads, and it would have meant that each and every driver would at least think about the cost before heading out on the interstate. It also would have caused people to seriously think about eco- and urban-friendly public transit as an alternative. The money from tolls could have been used to make public transit cheaper, more reliable and more frequent.
But passenger car tolls died in the legislature, as did truck-only tolls. Instead of billions in revenue, the government is now planning on piling yet another fee on the trucking industry in order to raise a paltry $90 million.
This is deeply unfair. While trucks do cause a lot of wear and tear on the highways, trucking companies already pay tons in fees to the state. And the trucks we often grumble about when stuck on the highway behind them are the ones making sure we maintain our standard of living during the pandemic. They literally have kept this country running. For this we want to punish them?
Second, yes, $90 million is not a ton of money. The idea is that by shoring up the Special Transportation Fund we’ll have access to all that sweet, sweet federal stimulus money, which will rain down upon us like a monsoon in the desert. Blessed are we, saved from the consequences of our own bad choices.
The thing is, the federal stimulus isn’t agreed on yet. There’s a lot in the governor’s budget that assumes we’ll be getting plenty of money from the feds, and there’s very good reason to think that’s true, but it’s never a good idea to count chickens before they hatch. A local legislator assured me in early 2020 that funding for transportation projects, fueled by truck-only tolls, was only weeks away. But that never materialized. Everything that was waiting on that money is still waiting.
Fixing the budget with federal stimulus money also completely forgets the most important lesson of the past four years: when it comes down to it, we’re on our own. We can’t count on Washington to haul our ashes out of the fire. We have to be as self-sufficient as possible.
I would have liked to see another try at tolls or, better, a big fat tax on all the rich people who can easily afford it. But that’s not what we got.
It’s a disappointing beginning to a re-election campaign.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.