Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford describes the TCI as a “gas tax” at an April 28 press conference. Stephen Busemeyer
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford describes the TCI as a “gas tax” at an April 28 press conference. Stephen Busemeyer

There was no shortage of irony in the timing of Friday’s declaration by Gov. Ned Lamont that the Transportation and Climate Initiative, otherwise known as TCI, would no longer be included in his budget proposal. The governor’s statement — an unpleasant surprise for many — just happened to coincide with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s first air quality alert of the season – one of the very problems TCI was designed to remedy.

TCI was conceived as a multi-state climate change-combatting concept for motor vehicles, something of a companion to the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which has markedly lowered greenhouse gas and other emissions in power plants in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

But Connecticut is on the verge of failing its first big TCI test.

After a relentless opposition campaign peppered with what advocates graciously described as misinformation,  lawmakers are not expected to even vote on – let alone approve – enabling legislation needed to develop a state-specific program from the broad TCI parameters it embraced late last year.

That, coupled with earlier concerns, call into question whether after more than a decade of development, TCI could stall. It also tests both the state’s leadership role in battling climate change and its reliability as a partner with the Biden administration as it starts to distribute money for climate actions.

“The eyes of the country in some ways are on Connecticut,” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, a member of the Environment Committee and a staunch TCI supporter. “We’re the one where it should have been a strong bet. I’m concerned the other states will back away when the see us back away.”

Haskell worries the state’s failure to pass the bill would leave Connecticut in a weakened position to compete for infrastructure funding from the Biden administration.

“Connecticut would not be in as strong a place to apply for and win funding,” he said.

TCI is a cap-and-invest program for motor vehicles. Like RGGI, it essentially puts a price on carbon pollution to incentivize using less of whatever is producing that pollution – which is gasoline and transportation diesel fuel in the case of TCI. There’s a cap on the emissions level that goes down over time. Gasoline suppliers basically pay to pollute and the states get the money.

All of that should dramatically lower greenhouse gas and other emissions from transportation – the sector that emits most of those pollutants – and at the same time provide a financial lifeline to the state’s transportation system and the under-served communities that are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and typically have limited means to do anything about it.

The additional supplier cost would likely get passed along to consumers – an increase of about 5 cents a gallon when TCI is set to start a year-and-a-half from now.

Only the broad outlines of TCI exist at this point and each state designs a program tailored to its needs and laws. Not all states need legislative authorization to start that development process, but Connecticut does. And while there have been general discussions about how to structure the program design process and a commitment to get far more of the proceeds than required to the environmental justice community, the state can’t move ahead until the legislature says it can.

Time is running out for that to happen.

Connecticut grabbed attention last December when it was one of only three states – along with Massachusetts and Rhode Island – plus the District of Columbia to sign a memorandum of understanding to move to the final stage of TCI – the development and implementation of a state plan by 2023.

Thirteen states from Maine to North Carolina, and including Washington D.C., are participating in the initiative. Most of them signed a letter last December reaffirming their commitment to TCI.

Although some media outlets in Connecticut and Massachusetts have reported this week that other states have dropped out, this is untrue, as are reports that Connecticut’s expected inaction means it’s also quitting the initiative.

But TCI’s legislative meltdown is clear, and it began when Connecticut Republicans, local oil industry leaders and other business groups labeled the potential gas price increase a “gas tax” that would trickle down as price hikes in everything from gas to groceries. Even though the “tax” label is inaccurate, it stuck, and TCI supporters were unable to deploy an equally effective counter-punch.

Pointing out that TCI will lower motor vehicle emissions broadly, by 26% — and will also provide public health benefits, potentially helping to lower the stubbornly high incidence of asthma in the state – did not do the trick.

A stand-alone TCI-enabling bill made it out of committee on a party-line vote. And while there was some intra-party pushback, the Democratic majorities in each chamber seemed to have enough votes to push it through.

But in recent budget negotiations, it was added to the governor’s budget – ostensibly because TCI has a revenue component, according to Environment Committee Co-chair Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who said it “had been a collective decision that made sense at the time.”

It backfired.

TCI became a bargaining chip, and it was jettisoned in negotiations. When Lamont announced Friday that the budget agreement did not include any state tax increases, environmental advocates were upset that it seemed like he all but signed on to the Republican talking points about TCI being a gas tax. Then Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney did him one better by calling it a regressive tax.

Those statements came only a few hours after Lamont himself had appeared with other government leaders and advocates pushing for passage of TCI. Finger-pointing by the advocacy community has targeted the governor, whose office wound up playing defense three days later.

“Governor Lamont has not pulled out of TCI and remains committed to the program and to action on the climate crisis,” said Lamont spokesman Max Reiss in a statement on Monday. “Action is especially needed to address emissions from transportation, the leading source of greenhouse gases, in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change and to meet the state’s legislatively established 2030 emission goals.”

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes has spent much of this week in meetings with all the TCI states discussing design and implementation in support of Lamont’s view, according to a spokesman.

Looney and House Speaker Matt Ritter have come in for intense criticism from advocates who have continued pushing for action. But with less than 24 hours left in the 2021 legislative session, that seems unlikely.

“If we’re the only ones reaching out and educating legislators, we have a lot of work to do because leadership’s not doing it,” said Amy McLean, Connecticut director and senior policy advocate at Acadia Center, which along with other advocacy groups has been trying to educate lawmakers and citizens alike about TCI for two years.

“We thought leadership was behind us, but we didn’t know we’d have to bring it over the line.”

On Tuesday, Ritter seemed to ramp up his support for TCI.

“Let me be clear – I support TCI. I do,” he said during a morning scrum with reporters, giving hope to advocates still looking for an opening to push a measure through. “Do I think you’ll see an amendment? No.”

While advocates viewed that as hopeful, especially if there is a special session in which TCI is resurrected, Ritter also threw blame on them. “The thing I told the advocates is I don’t think enough information went into what the funding would do. I think people felt like it was going into some random account in the general fund when actually it’s paying for projects that would help deal with communities that have been impacted by pollution,” he said. Although without legislative action, the process to determine where the money goes can’t even begin.

“I think we’ll be able to convince people,” he said. “Maybe it’s today, maybe it’s two weeks, maybe it’s two months, maybe it’s next year, but I fully support it and I will put my weight behind it the best that I can.”

This was a little bit heartening to advocates.

“It has been explained exhaustively, in depth multiple times,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at Save the Sound, adding that Ritter’s support “does matter.”

So does time. The memorandum of understanding Connecticut signed stipulates that the first compliance period for an operating TCI – now referred to as TCI-P – will begin Jan. 1, 2023 “or at such later time as at least three jurisdictions have completed the legal processes required to implement their individual programs.”

While this gives states some wiggle room, it doesn’t offer much flexibility with only four states on board. Rhode Island also must pass enabling legislation and it’s a bit behind schedule due to a change in leadership after the signatory governor, Gina Raimondo, became President Biden’s secretary of commerce. But it seems to be moving along.

Massachusetts and DC can plunge right in. But there was a warning shot in a statement provided by the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Department: “The Commonwealth has always planned to move forward with implementation only with multiple states participating.”

The Massachusetts agency did not respond to requests for further explanation.

The Georgetown Climate Center, which has facilitated TCI from its inception, was adamant Tuesday the process is not in jeopardy and the states are still on board.

“Making public policy isn’t easy, and that is especially true when it comes to something as important and urgent as climate and transportation policy,” said Kate Zyla, the center’s executive director, in a statement. “That makes the sustained engagement of all 12 jurisdictions over the past six months all the more impressive and encouraging.”

But Connecticut’s difficulties may be sending two messages – the first about TCI, the second about the state.

“It says that this a harder thing to do than maybe folks thought,” said McLean at Acadia. “We are the learning curve for all of us because we’re the first to go.”

But she and others lamented that Connecticut could have been the trailblazer on TCI.

“It’s a lost opportunity for us to lead the way,” she said.

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.