Joan Nicols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Farmers are appealing to lawmakers to exempt their vehicles from a yet-to-be-implemented highway user fee or tax on the miles they drive. The state is expected to raise $90 million from the fee or tax once it goes into effect and the money will go to help fund transportation infrastructure.

The call prompted a bigger discussion about the surplus in the Special Transportation Fund and whether the state still needs to implement the tax.

There’s currently a $500 million surplus in the Special Transportation Fund. At least $90 million of that will be used to fund the gas tax holiday lawmakers planned to approve Wednesday. But that leaves $410 million.

“We have to look at the whole puzzle. This is never about pounding the table and insisting on one tiny piece of it,” Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, said. “We have to look at the whole thing and make sure we’re both supporting our transportation infrastructure, which is desperately in need of investment and also paying attention to the costs that certain people in the state and certain industries are facing.” 

House Democratic leadership dismissed the idea of getting rid of the highway fee, which applies to large trucks and was adopted by the legislature last year.

Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, called the fee affordable when compared to fees levied by nearby states. Scanlon said it costs $125 for a truck to cross the George Washington Bridge, one-way.

“Most people who would pay this highway user fee to drive across the entire length of Connecticut would pay about 25 cents,” Scanlon said. “We have an issue long-term with the viability and sustainability of our STF. We have a problem right now where our infrastructure is getting worse and worse and the receipts we get from the gas tax is getting less and less because cars are becoming more fuel efficient.” 

During a press availability in his state Capitol office, House Speaker Matt Ritter said he had “no interest in repealing it.”

Carving out agricultural vehicles from the highway user tax would cost the state about $25 million. In a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders, Connecticut Farm Bureau executive director Joan Nichols said the change would help an industry facing rising costs.

“Connecticut farm businesses are facing production and input costs not seen by our industry in decades,” Nichols said. “We are experiencing a perfect storm that we feel compelled to bring to your attention. Since January 2021, according to the most recent data from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services, the prices of key fertilizer sources have increased from 171% to 315%.”

Republicans offered an amendment last year to the highway user fee bill that would have exempted all agricultural vehicles, but the amendment was defeated by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Republican lawmakers say Democratic lawmakers who voted for the tax were being hypocrites. Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly said nothing has changed between last year and this year.

“Nothing has changed, the circumstances aren’t better in Connecticut,” Kelly said. “They’re only getting worse.”

He said the highway user fee wasn’t necessary.

“The budget was balanced,” Kelly said. “It remains balanced” without this tax. 

He said they needed to repeal the tax and take the burdens off families who will ultimately pay higher prices for these goods, including food.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said they proposed legislation to eliminate the tax, but Democrats have refused to raise the bill for a public hearing.

The Motor Transport Association of Connecticut (MTAC) said it should be repealed for all vehicles.

“Any push to exempt certain things, such as agricultural commodities, is a direct admission that the HUT raises prices for Connecticut businesses and consumers. It’s an admission that the HUT will exacerbate inflation,” Joe Sculley, president of the MTAC, said. “That’s why the whole thing should be eliminated in its entirety.”