An Oct. 13 panel on the Transportation and Climate Initiative hosted by Elected Officials to Protect America

There was an awkward moment during a Wednesday panel to boost support for a multi-state climate agreement stalled in both Connecticut and Rhode Island. Asked how to get Republicans on board with the initiative, a Rhode Island Democrat declined the question. 

“I’m going to defer on that,” said state Sen. Meghan Kallman of Pawtucket. “Rhode Island has a Democratic majority — significant Democratic majority in both chambers. So…”

She trailed off but her unstated point seemed clear: Rhode Island didn’t need Republican support to get its legislature’s blessing to adopt the Transportation and Climate Initiative. Supporters just needed to convince the other Democrats.

The question from the Elected Officials to Protect America host went instead to Sen. Will Haskell, co-chair of the Transportation Committee in Connecticut, where the same political reality holds true. Haskell chuckled. 

“Frustratingly — or thankfully, Connecticut does as well and frustratingly we have found that this is a hyper-partisan issue here in this state,” he said.

The issue has been partisan as far as it goes. Republicans joined forces with fuel sellers, who would be required under the TCI cap-and-trade program to buy allowances for pollution resulting from vehicle exhaust. Consumers would inevitably foot the bill for the extra costs so opponents branded the agreement a new gas tax. 

They held rallies across the state and rekindled some of the dissent that effectively sunk Gov. Ned Lamont’s push to implement highway tolls in recent years. Lamont committed to TCI in part as an alternative to shore up Connecticut’s transportation funding. The agreement requires some of the revenue generated to be spent on environmental projects and cleaner transportation options. But so far opposition has kept both tolls and TCI from passage.

So how do proponents convert those Republicans? Haskell recommended highlighting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a similar program on power sector emissions that’s widely considered successful, or point to Charlie Baker, the Republican Massachusetts governor who has committed to TCI (later during the panel Emily Norton, a Newton Massachusetts councilmember, said of Baker: “he’s more popular among Democrats than among Republicans.”) 

But in the end, proponents in Connecticut, like Rhode Island, don’t need Republican support. They just need to convince the other Democrats. 

As of last month, they hadn’t. Although supporters in the House say they’re confident the initiative has enough votes to pass there, the Senate is another story. Senate President Martin Looney has been vocal about concerns that an increase in the price of gas would have a disproportionate impact on low-income drivers who can’t afford hybrid cars or electric vehicles. 

“The proposal, in terms of environmental policy, is entirely appropriate and is broadly supported,” Looney said last month. “However at the same time, as Democrats, we shouldn’t be doing anything that has any kind of regressive financial effect.”

Looney has not ruled out eventually supporting the initiative if packaged with progressive tax adjustments, but he did dash supporters’ hopes of voting on the policy in September. On Wednesday, Haskell said his caucus continued to have discussions on how to offset those concerns but declined to elaborate what policies were being considered. 

Haskell and Rhode Island’s Kallman urged supporters to phone their legislators. Although Rhode Island’s state Senate approved the program back in June, it died on the House calendar. Kallman was confident Wednesday it would be raised again. But for now, two of the initiative’s committed states continue to sit it out, leaving just Massachusetts and Washington D.C. moving forward.

“We do a really good job here in Connecticut of setting lofty ambitions,” Haskell remarked on the state’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to reduce its carbon emissions below an agreed upon threshold. “Where we’re not so good is giving policymakers the tools to actualize those goals.”