Gov. Ned Lamont, far left, with state legislators at the Westport event.

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.

Irina Comer

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).

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  1. Thank you for your analysis and insights. I wish there were more candidates with the courage to lead with the truth. We citizens of the State of Connecticut must reject the lies and malfeasense that has become the normal in our state government.

  2. Well said, Ms. Comer. They keep trying to slither away from their $171 million budget diversion shortchanging the STF. No matter what they claim, it did happen. It’s documented in our state budget. Plus, Will Haskell may want this hidden or forgotten, but he admitted it happened during a meeting with the public last spring in Wilton. Fortunately, one of the citizen activists was there, asked the question and recorded it. Here it is –

  3. Enough with the garbage. The Republicans propose to borrow billions with no way to pay for, plain and simple. This is NOT fiscally sound and is the exact way our state has gotten into the problems it has now. The choice is do nothing, raise the gas tax at some point in the future or tolls. Do nothing (which seems to be the Republicans motto, note I am. a Republican) hasn’t worked. Raising the gas tax places the full financial burden on Connecticut residents. Tolls, which is a user fee since you only pay it if you use it, at least gets some money from out of state drivers. I go with that.

      1. You’re right I am not a conservative. Certainly not as conservative as the party has become. I am middle of the road. There was a time not long ago when the Republican Party was not so conservative. It was the Republican Party that conceived the Interstate Highway System. Obamacare is based on a Republican health care plan.

        Let’s be honest, today’s Republican Party is really Libertarian, wanting little to no government regulation. It’s become a puppet of big business and special interest groups like the NRA. I could leave the party but I feel more Party members need to be openly critical of the current party to return it to its core values. Unless it does that, the party is doomed to fail because so much of what the conservatives want is not palatable to the majority of the country.

    1. Her main point is accurate. The state could increase our infrastructure investment by reprioritizing and eliminating less essential items in the current ANNUAL $21.5 billion budget. If you do not think this is possible, then you have not read the budget. I suggest doing that before you blindly state what is “garbage.” Her statement of concern about Democrat leaders insistence that diverting incoming funding vs. raiding a fund (while technically different) does not lead to the same result, that is, less money for infrastructure is intellectually dishonest, arrogant, and insults taxpayers intelligence.

      1. Even the great Republican naysayer, Len Fasano has said the current budget is about as lean as it can get with little more that can be cut without significant impacts to services so finding billions to pay for infrastructure improvements is not likely.

        And yes there are arguments that could be made on both sides of whether there has been diversion of funds or not. I do however want to note that back when certain revenue sources were directed to transportation, it was done as a temporary fix to keep the Transportation Fund solvent until a more permanent funding solution could be enacted and was not necessarily meant to be permanent. That was very clear.

      2. I did not hear that comment from Sen. Fasano, so if you could provide a link, it would be appreciated. I have listened to some Republicans argue that there is only so much we can realistically cut due to unrealistic labor agreements etc.

        I have read the budget in great detail (including ambiguous line items). I estimate $3 Billion (~25%) of the total real-dollar budget (not including the debt service ramping up over the next decade) could be eliminated in less than five years. The state also needs to sell assets (now) to offset the cost of future long-term unfunded liabilities. We own far too many non-functional assets and will not have the money to invest in those assets for at least another 30 years; they should be sold and developed privately (as many other states have done when they dig their hole too big). The overall impact will be a significant but temporary reduction in almost all non-critical services.

      3. Unfortunately that comment I saw on the news and never saw it in print. I did look for it. I’m assuming the Republican Party killed it since that goes against their most common contention that the Democrat’s budget is bloated. This could also be the reason the party did not bother to even propose an alternative budget this year. I highly doubt that 25% of the budget could be cut without significantly impacting services or raising the ire of the State Employees Union. I’m not sure what assets the state could sell off but I would think there are some. I know CTDOT has some but that would be a one time shot that would not really solve the budget problem.

    2. I don’t like the Republican plan either. No tolls or rainy day fund. Both parties need to back the drawing board. Also to state that NO out of state driver get gas in our state is garbage. Its not true. My parents live in NY and always fill up around my house cause belive it or not. Its cheaper here. Have you ever been to any rest area on 95 or merritt. Lots of OOS plates. Gas filling eating all kids of economic activity going on. Not a fair statement.

      1. Your parents must live in or near New York City. We are a drive through state. In comparison to other states, very few out of state drivers buy gas here because it’s cheaper in other places like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and upstate New York. Yes the service areas have out of state drivers but away from Fairfield County they are few.

        I agree that the Governor should have quantified how much revenue comes from out of state drivers. I even sent his office an email saying that but he has not done that. I also suggested he quantify how much the gas tax would have to be raised to come up with the $150 to $320 million that tolls could generate. This might help sway some naysayers.

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