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

With the legislature heading towards a special session, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday he will push lawmakers to include the Transportation and Climate Initiative in a limited agenda already expected to cover cannabis legalization and budget language. 

The initiative is a multi-state agreement to require fuel suppliers to buy permits for the pollution that results from the fuel they sell. The plan was designed to reduce carbon emissions and was expected to result in fuel sellers passing extra costs to consumers at the pump. 

The governor signed onto the plan late last year, but implementation required approval from the legislature. He didn’t get it. Republicans and fuel suppliers launched an aggressive opposition campaign, arguing the program amounted to a gas tax. During budget negotiations, Democratic leaders of both chambers told Lamont they did not have the votes to pass it this year. 

But proponents saw a glimmer of hope Wednesday when it became clear lawmakers would have to reconvene sometime in the next few weeks. During a Thursday afternoon press conference, the governor said he would urge legislative leaders to take it up.

“I’ve talked to everybody. I said I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the right thing to do for this state. I think it’s the right thing to do for our kids. I think it’s a small fee on petroleum wholesalers. I think it makes sense. I’m doing that with [Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker and Rhode Island and we had other states ready to follow. That said, if the legislature doesn’t want to take it up, that’s their call but I’m pushing,” Lamont said.

As the session closed at midnight Wednesday, Democratic leaders of both chambers of the legislature sounded reluctant to resurrect the initiative during a special session this summer. As he walked off the dais, House Speaker Matt Ritter said he would talk it over with Lamont and Senate President Martin Looney. 

Ritter said the decision may ultimately hinge on the timing of the special session. If it occurs quickly, the agenda will likely be limited to cannabis legalization and an omnibus budget implementer. He said a later special session could be more “aggressive.” But he did not seem inclined to upend an agreement on the recently-passed state budget, which included no new taxes and found support from many Republicans.

“It is not my goal to undo the bipartisan budget that was done and do a bunch of things,” Ritter said. 

Looney said he still did not have adequate votes among Senate Democrats to pass the initiative this year. He said that there were concerns that it amounted to a regressive tax because its resulting impact on gas prices could have a greater effect on lower income people who can not afford hybrid or electric vehicles.  

“I think it’s more likely something for next session,” Looney said. “If somebody comes up with a brilliant idea or the governor is willing to take a new look at progressive taxation, you know, obviously that’s a possibility but I think it’s more likely an issue for the 2022 session unless there’s a breakthrough very suddenly.”

Meanwhile, Republican opposition to the initiative has not softened. Asked about the potential for its inclusion in the upcoming special session, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora responded with deadpan sarcasm. 

“That’s a wildly popular bill. Everybody wants gas tax increases. So go ahead, we’ll be happy to debate that proposal,” Candelora said.

For a moment in the waning hours of the session, the initiative seemed to be back in play. With time short and Republicans planning a lengthy debate on a bill to legalize recreational cannabis, Ritter tabled the cannabis bill until the special session. Announcing that news, he said any number of formerly dead concepts could be back on the table– including TCI. 

By the time the session was over, Ritter had softened his position somewhat, saying he had used hyperbole in an effort to drive home a point: it was a dangerous play for the minority party to talk bills to death at the end of a session. The majority party could convene a special session and raise any proposal it chose, he said. 

“Be careful on the other side that you just don’t say, ‘Well, the new tradition we’re going to have is any bill we hate on Tuesday or Wednesday, we’re going to filibuster,’” Ritter said. “Because then we can go into special session and do all the bills that die.”

But the earlier comments led to some hopeful speculation. In a press release, Charles Rothenberger, a climate lawyer with the environmental advocacy group Save the Sound, called it encouraging. 

“We’re heartened by reports that legislative leaders are open to running TCI in a special session later this month,” Rothenberger said in the statement. “That would go a long way to demonstrating seriousness about the climate crisis, and concern for the health of Connecticut’s residents.”

On Wednesday, Lamont worried about what impact Connecticut’s inaction may have on other states that have signed onto the compact. He suggested that the legislature was out of step with Connecticut residents. 

“It just seems to me that a lot of people pay lip service to the environment. When it comes time to stand up, what that meant — TCI meant — in terms of asthma along our main arteries, what that meant in terms of being able to do a lot more in terms of resiliency,” Lamont said “I think we lost a big opportunity there. But the door’s not shut.”