(CTNewsJunkie file photo)
(CTNewsJunkie file photo) Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

A multi-state agreement designed to reduce carbon emissions and raise gas prices to fund a more environmentally-friendly transportation system cleared a key committee Wednesday.

The legislature’s Environment Committee approved a bill to have Connecticut join the Transportation Climate Initiative. The pact, which includes Massachusetts and Rhode Island, requires fuel suppliers to buy permits for carbon emissions. It is aimed at cutting pollution and raising revenue, some of which must be spent on a cleaner transportation system.

Gov. Ned Lamont signed onto the agreement in December and has lobbied hard for its passage through the legislature. But Republicans have opposed the initiative and protested the resulting impact on the price of fuel. The agreement imposes a new expense on fuel suppliers who are expected to pass the increased costs on to consumers. They have characterized the proposal as a gas tax.

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During an hour-long debate Wednesday, Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, said the proposal was difficult because it asked residents to weigh a cost they could easily quantify at the gas pump against more abstract costs like climate change and the degradation of air quality in communities across the state. 

“We are already paying those [costs]. For me, that’s the math,” Horn said. “It is our job, particularly on this committee but as legislators generally to take into account those diffuse costs that are being born by particularly vulnerable residents of our state and of our communities and to do that math.”

Sen. Christine Cohen, the panel’s co-chairwoman, said the bill included a provision aimed at controlling the increased costs consumers will see at the pumps. Gas prices could not be hiked by more than 9 cents per gallon in the first year, scheduled for 2023. But the agreement is designed to scale up over the next 10 years.

Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, said the impact on gas prices could be as high as 26 cents per gallon by the end of the decade. 

“I just don’t see how we could possibly be implementing this sort of gas tax on our constituents at this time. I understand it’s implemented in 2023, but it’s an extremely regressive tax. You have to pay for gas to get back and forth to work,” Harding said. 

The Lamont administration has argued the increase will be around 5 cents initially. The proposal is expected to generate around $90 million in its first year. But the governor has more often focused on its ability to help the state leverage federal investment in Connecticut’s aging transportation infrastructure. 

At one of several events his office has organized to promote the initiative in recent weeks, Lamont referred to the proposal as a “20% copay” on federal funding. 

“This is not an opportunity we want to miss,” Lamont said earlier this month. 

During the committee meeting, Republicans raised doubts about whether the bill’s language would adequately prevent its revenue from being diverted by the legislature to fund other programs. Some objected to its goal of encouraging residents to transition from internal combustion vehicles to more expensive electric models.

“What’s next? Are we going to legislate people and tax them to not eat red meat?” Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, said. 

Proponents argued that the state had a unique opportunity to help keep pollution levels down. Sen. Will Haskell, D-Wilton, said one of the few silver linings of the pandemic had been seeing carbon emissions drop to historic lows as many former commuters worked from home.

“I think it would be a real shame if we decided to just return to the old normal. Let’s not put kids back on those diesel buses that pump exhaust into their lungs. Let’s not just accept as a fact that urban communities are going to see higher asthma rates,” Haskell said. 

The committee approved the bill on a 21 to 11, party-line vote Wednesday, sending the agreement to the state Senate for consideration.