On an unseasonably warm Sunday, on January 12, I managed to find a room even more full of hot air than anywhere else. That room was the site of the town hall meeting with Gov. Ned Lamont, hosted by Sen. Will Haskell and Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, at which tales of tolls were spun like records at a David Solomon club party. A full recap of the town hall’s ridiculousness would be beyond the scope of an op-ed, but some highlights are certainly in order.
First, I learned that Sen. Haskell does not believe that a toll is a tax, but rather a “user fee.” No, I am not joking – he genuinely seemed to believe that is a meaningful distinction. Perhaps Sen. Haskell has yet to read Shakespeare. For just as “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so a tax by any other name would cost as much. Sen. Haskell and his colleagues could call the income tax “Bob” if they chose; it still takes money out of our paychecks. Tolls are no different.
Second, and perhaps more shocking, every elected official on the dais (Gov. Lamont, Sens. Haskell, Bob Duff, and Carlo Leone, and Reps. Steinberg and Lucy Dathan) objected strenuously to the assertion that the state government has ever raided the Special Transportation Fund. Sen. Duff and Rep. Steinberg stated flatly that such an assertion was untrue – “fake news” if you will. Sen. Leone somewhat more helpfully explained that the legislature had not taken money out of the STF, but had instead taken money that was supposed to be deposited in the STF and simply decided not to deposit it. Hence, no raiding. Sen. Haskell went a step further and offered an analogy – a charitable person who pledges to donate $100 per month to NPR, but who, in a month when expenses were running high, contributed only $50. Surely, he said, one would not accuse our benevolent NPR fan of stealing money from NPR.
I also like analogies and stories, and so I will offer Sen. Haskell and his colleagues a more helpful example. When Sen. Haskell was elected, the state promised him a salary of $28,000 per year, along with $5,500 per year for unspecified expenses. However, times are tough here in Connecticut, so imagine the state elected instead to pay him $10,000 per year in salary and $1,000 per year for expenses. I think everyone would agree that paying Sen. Haskell $11,000 instead of the $33,500 promised would be the equivalent of taking $22,500 from him. And that is the difference. The STF is not an NPR pledge drive; it is one of the aspects of the state budget most essential to the economic vitality of Connecticut. That none of Lamont, Duff, Haskell, Leone, Dathan, or Steinberg understand the difference should be concerning to every state resident, regardless of political stripe.
But this line of reasoning brings me to my third and most important point. The Democrat contingent on stage made one thing unequivocally clear – literally everything else in the Connecticut budget is more important to them than fixing the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. How else to explain the logic of their STF “non-raid?” That they consistently refused to transfer to the STF money that was meant to be contributed to the STF necessarily means that they could find absolutely nothing else in the budget less important than transportation infrastructure. This should be shocking to everyone, and should make everyone listen that much more critically to the arguments being offered by proponents of tolls.
Like former President Obama, these Democrats love straw man arguments. In fact, I haven’t seen such a continuous display of straw men as I saw at the town hall since I last watched The Wizard of Oz . Listening to Lamont, Duff, Haskell, Leone, Dathan, and Steinberg go on and on about the Mianus bridge collapse, the number of bridges and roads in a state of disrepair, the Moody’s report highlighting Connecticut transportation infrastructure as an economic inhibitor, and other matters, one could be forgiven for thinking that a large contingent of state residents was pushing back against making improvements to transportation infrastructure. In fact, no one is making that argument. Everyone agrees that transportation infrastructure needs to be improved. But a large swath of Connecticut rightly wonders why the only way to accomplish that is to introduce tolls.
The answer, of course, is that tolls are not necessary. What is necessary is responsible government officials willing to make difficult choices about funding priorities. What the town hall made abundantly clear is that no one on that stage is such an official.
Irina Comer of Norwalk is a candidate for State Representative, District 142 (Norwalk, New Canaan).