To no one’s surprise, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday he will use his authority to call the General Assembly into special session this summer in a renewed effort to return tolls to Connecticut’s highways. There is no guarantee, however, legislators will answer that call.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, supports the use of tolls to finance the modernization of the state’s aging transportation infrastructure, but he warned that the governor and his allies need to regain the public-relations battle lost to opponents.
“At best — at best — tolls are a 50-50 proposition in this state,” Aresimowicz said. “And those that are working very hard to disrupt that are putting a lot of misinformation out there.”
Aresimowicz’s comments reflect a belief among lawmakers that the Lamont administration botched the rollout of tolls in February, giving Republicans, the trucking industry and others an opportunity to frame tolls as just another demand on residents.
Before there is a call for a special session, there needs to be a new plan.
“I agree with the speaker in the sense of a reboot,” said Ryan Drajewicz, the governor’s chief of staff. “Now that we are out of session, the boil is now coming down to a simmer and eventually cooling off. What we want to do is really go back to where we initially started, where this is too big of an issue for the administration itself to take on.
“What we want to do is convene leadership from both sides of the aisle.”
The governor said Democrats and Republicans agree that the state needs between $700 million and $800 million in new annual revenue for transportation. The fight is over where to find those dollars.
The part-time General Assembly ended its annual session at midnight Wednesday, two days after the passage of a $43 billion, two-year budget. It erased a projected shortfall of $3.7 billion without raising income taxes and leaves the state with budget reserves of $2 billion.
“That’s the national headline,” said Lamont, a Democrat and former small business owner who took office in January. “This is a state that had a tough time over the last couple of decades and I think it sends a message loud and clear that this is a fresh start for the state.”
With the budget resolved and the regular session over, the question now is whether the administration has a better chance of finding a path to tolls. So far, Republicans, especially in the House, have been inalterably opposed to tolls.
“We are genuinely open to the other perspectives, and we are going to aggressively pursue that. It’s not going to be our way or the highway,” Drajewicz said. “It’s going to be an honest effort to put all ideas on the table. We’d be foolish to go into special session with a rinse and repeat sort of approach.”
Legislators adopted their own limited call to return in special session, confining the agenda to adopting a bond package for school construction and other capital projects. But they acknowledge another try to find new revenue for transportation awaits them.
There seemed to be little appetite Thursday for exploring whether Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim should be given a chance to bring a casino to his city. The tribal owners of the state’s two casinos say they are willing to open a small casino, investigating $100 million in the city, but only if Ganim can convince the state to give them exclusive rights to sports betting and other financial inducements.
“My sense is, the tribes deal still seems a little half-baked to me,” Lamont said. “So I don’t know if it’s to be worth going into special session.”
Tolls are back at the top of the governor’s agenda.
If Republicans stay on the sidelines, the margins for success are thin: The consent of 76 of the 91 Democrats in the House and 18 of the 22 Democrats in the Senate. Democrats say privately that they currently see 14 solid yes votes, four hard no votes, and four open to persuasion.
Aresimowicz said he believes he has the sufficient votes necessary for passage in the House.
Lamont acknowledged talking to lawmakers skittish about the issue.
“We’re going to deal with this head on,” Lamont said, describing dozens of lawmakers telling him they understand the need for tolls. He said they say, “Probably you’re doing the right thing, governor. I understand that. But it’s a tough vote for me to take.”