Blurred silhouettes of cars surrounded by steam from the exhaust pipes in a traffic jam. (LanaElcova via Shutterstock)
(LanaElcova via Shutterstock)

Connecticut’s rebuff of the Transportation and Climate Initiative was the subject of debate this week in Rhode Island, where state senators voted to move forward with the regional pact despite reluctance from their next door neighbors.

Rhode Island’s Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 28 to 7 Tuesday to authorize the multi-state agreement requiring fuel suppliers to buy permits for the pollution that results from the fuel they sell. The plan aims to reduce carbon emissions and would result in fuel sellers passing extra costs to consumers at the pump. 

The state was expected to be one of three founding members of the initiative, along with Massachusetts and Connecticut. The city of Washington D.C. has also committed. However, things haven’t gone to plan here in Connecticut where Gov. Ned Lamont signed onto the pact but failed to muster adequate support among lawmakers. 

The legislative session — along with a subsequent special session — concluded without a vote on the plan, which faced fierce opposition from fuel suppliers and Republicans, who have characterized it as an additional gas tax.

At various times throughout a 40-minute debate Tuesday, Rhode Island senators reflected on Connecticut’s inaction.

“Our neighbor state, Connecticut, two weeks ago, shut this whole idea down. Why?” Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, said. “What did they see that we’re not seeing?”

Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry

Sen. Gordon Rogers, R-Foster, said the number of states willing to participate in the initiative seemed to have quickly “fizzled down” to two states. 

“It started off with 13 [states] and D.C. and that evaporated like a teapot with the steam coming out of it and there’s no water left in it,” Rogers said. He likened Rhode Island’s pursuit of the policy without support from more states to firefighters responding without protective equipment. “When you run into that fire without your fire gear and your oxygen tank on — it’s gonna hurt.”

During the debate Connecticut’s situation regarding TCI was sometimes mischaracterized. At one point, a lawmaker alleged that Lamont had come out against the policy as anti-business. In reality, the governor continues to support the initiative.  

The bill’s proponent, Sen. Alana DiMario, D-Narragansett, noted that Connecticut remains signed on to the TCI memorandum of understanding. She said Connecticut lawmakers were convening a special session and the initiative would be on the table. At the moment, this appears unlikely. 

Lawmakers wrapped up a special session last week in which they legalized recreational cannabis and passed legislation to implement the state budget. Although the initiative was discussed beforehand,it was never raised. Meanwhile, the legislature plans to convene another session in the fall but, so far, it seems to be limited to allocating remaining federal stimulus funds. 

DiMario said Massachusetts officials do not require legislative approval to implement the program and planned to move forward with it. But she urged her colleagues to consider taking a leadership role.

Sen. Alana DiMario, D-Narragansett

“When we’re talking about things like who should be the first and why would we move ahead if nobody else is doing that, I think the concept of leadership is important to keep in mind,” DiMario said. “We know that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Why wouldn’t we lead on this issue?”

Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, R-North Smithfield, said Rhode Island motorists could easily cross state borders and fill their tanks for cheaper in Connecticut. 

“There will be, I believe, a larger flight of these vehicles leaving the state for cheaper gas in Connecticut, which normally doesn’t really have cheaper gas but if we implement this and the rest of the region isn’t then we’re only setting ourselves up for failure,” she said.

In Rhode Island the TCI bill still requires approval by the House, which, according to the Providence Journal, is not likely before the legislature’s summer adjournment, but it could be taken up in the fall. 

In Connecticut, the proposal’s fate remains unclear. During this year’s budget negotiations, legislative leaders from both chambers told Lamont they lacked the votes to approve the policy. Environmental advocates have disputed this claim. 

At the close of session on June 9, Senate President Martin Looney, a progressive Democrat from New Haven, said lawmakers would likely revisit the initiative next year. Looney said Senate Democrats believed in TCI’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to address climate change. But he worried that it effectively represented a regressive tax. 

“Wealthier people are able to afford hybrid cars and electric cars. The lower income people who are driving the 10 year old Toyotas and the 12 year old Honda Civics,” Looney said, “there’s a matter of equity, I think, and that’s a problem.”

During the debate in Rhode Island, de la Cruz, the chamber’s Republican whip, made a similar argument, calling the policy morally “cruel.”

“The affluent can afford the new tax. Who will bear the burden of this tax? It will be the poor and the middle class,” she said.