Even transportation panel’s homework sets off a partisan furor

Chairman Cameron Staples

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Chairman Cameron Staples

The group studying how to fund a 30-year transportation improvement program in Connecticut knows there are few options – if any – that won’t spark controversy.

But the state’s Transportation Finance Panel watched that challenge expand significantly after its research became the focal point of an intensifying partisan battle among state legislative leaders.

With a report due to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in October, the group’s task doesn’t appear to be getting easier. Democratic and Republican leaders both insisted Tuesday that rhetoric from the other side is distorting not only the debate over fixing Connecticut’s infrastructure, but how to strengthen the economy in general.

“It’s always a challenge to identify sufficient revenues to fund what everyone would consider essential transportation improvements,” panel Chairman Cameron Staples, a New Haven Democrat and former state representative, said Tuesday. “It becomes even more critical when you consider that, given the scope of the task we’re facing, we’re trying to consider every alternative – not only to raise revenue, but to manage projects, achieve efficiencies in construction and in financing.”

Staples’ panel, which includes transportation advocates from both sides of the aisle, is studying how numerous states finance transportation. That means research into many examples of tolling, fuel taxes, project-labor agreements, public-private partnerships and various other topics all-but certain to spark intense debate.

“And we’re still in the discussion stage,” Staples added. “We literally have not developed any recommendations yet.”

The former lawmaker was referring to a verbal sparring match that developed over research into a “mileage tax” – a system being tested in Oregon that levies a charge against residents for each mile they drive.

After a report on this research was aired in late July on WTNH-TV 8 in New Haven, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, referenced the mileage tax in an op-ed piece in The Courant.

“We may be headed for a special legislative session this fall to contemplate adding motorists’ fees or tolls into the mix,” she said.

And the ranking GOP senator on the legislature’s Transportation Committee, Toni Boucher of Wilton, issued a press release blasting the concept and urging the study panel to reject it.

“How will such a tax make Connecticut inviting to new residents?” she wrote. “… Are they living in an alternate universe?”

The Democratic counter to the Republicans’ statements took two forms.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides

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House Minority Leader Themis Klarides

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden accused Republicans of distorting reality. The GOP had issued mailers, he said, that somehow turned one concept – out of more than a dozen – researched by a study panel, into a likely proposal of the legislature’s Democratic majority.

Sharkey called it “a cynical effort to scare them (voters) about an idea no legislator had even discussed.”

But Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, issued a statement of opposition to the mileage tax idea. “This is an unproven idea,” he wrote. “I am opposed to it and know that there is no appetite amongst Senate Democrats to advance this idea should a formal recommendation come from the governor’s panel.”

Sharkey charged Tuesday that this is the latest distorted, negative statement in an intensifying campaign by Republican legislators that began during the regular 2015 General Assembly session.

“Obviously reasonable discussions and differences of opinion on policy are fair game,” he said. “That’s not what the Republicans are doing. This is a deliberate strategy to provide misinformation to the public that focuses on the negative in an effort to gain political advantage.

“That’s not good for Connecticut in general, and it’s not good for the economy.”

But, Klarides said, it’s Democrats who have shattered the public’s confidence in government.

Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislature dismissed projections of a major budget deficit while campaigning last year and promised a wide array of tax cuts after the election.

Malloy’s GOP opponent, Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, also had pledged not to raise taxes and to deliver a sales tax cut worth more than $300 million per year.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey

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House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey

Still after Malloy won re-election and Democrats retained control of the legislature, they canceled all tax breaks but one for retired teachers, and approved tax hikes worth roughly $1.3 billion over this fiscal year and next combined.

Despite this, nonpartisan analysts already are projecting another major deficit, topping $920 million, starting July 2017.

Given, that, Klarides said, it’s unrealistic of Democrats to believe the Transportation Finance Panel’s work wouldn’t be analyzed in the context of tax hikes and another deficit forecast.

“When somebody states the facts in government, that somehow has become negative?” she said.  “We’re obstructionists? Nobody wants the state of affairs in Connecticut to be where it is.”

Still, Staples said his panel has two more months to finish its job and a lot of ground to cover.

Malloy has asked the group to recommend funding to cover three decades’ worth of expanded transportation work.

There’s no way to do that, he said, without researching ideas that might prove controversial.

Commuters on the MetroNorth railroad.

File Photo

Commuters on the MetroNorth railroad.

For example, a new report Tuesday from the New England Public Policy Center, a think-tank affiliated with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, tackled the controversial subject of gasoline taxes.

Looking specifically at New England states, the study tried to analyze how fuel taxes – if used to support a major infrastructure program – could be structured to provide enough resources not only now, but decades into the future.

Though the center neither recommended nor dismissed gasoline taxes as a preferable option, it suggested that those state’s using them create mechanisms to adjust the taxes over time for two factors: inflation and increased fuel efficiency in vehicles.

Staples said late Tuesday afternoon that he hadn’t reviewed that report yet. But he also acknowledged that even discussing it would be challenging in the current political climate.

“I’ve been made acutely aware of that recently,” he said.

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