Opinion: Don't charge tomorrow's taxpayers for today's improvements

Hartford has a habit that I’d like to break.

Last month, as Governor Lamont delivered his budget address to the General Assembly, I remember the sinking feeling that came when I learned that 13 percent of Connecticut’s budget will be consumed by debt services. As a new lawmaker, I can’t help but feel saddled by the debts of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

For years, lawmakers have kicked the can down the road, burdening future voters, taxpayers and lawmakers with a legacy of debt. Consider the issue of public pensions. While lawmakers made generous promises, they regularly failed to set aside the annual required contribution to make future payments. Every day, I hear my Republican and Democratic colleagues condemn the fact that current taxpayers, lawmakers and voters are forced to grapple with yesterday’s credit card bills. Unfortunately, that’s where the bi-partisanship ends. Now, some of my colleagues are championing that same short-sighted approach.

Few can argue with a straight face that Connecticut’s infrastructure is fine as-is. The train from my district to Manhattan is slower today than it was in 1950. We ask residents to drive over at least 332 structurally deficient bridges scattered across the state. Connecticut drivers experience 81 million hours of delay per year while stuck in traffic, costing residents and businesses a staggering $1.9 billion dollars per year.

The million dollar (or perhaps billion dollar) question: how should we fund the much needed improvements to our infrastructure? I support the idea of tolling. That’s not because I like paying tolls – who does? It’s because we’re the only state between Maine and Florida that doesn’t ask drivers to contribute to the upkeep of our roads.

While Connecticut drivers dutifully pay tolls when traveling through other states, we give the out-of-state drivers who use our roads a free ride. New York raises $2.6 billion through tolls annually. Massachusetts raises over $440 million. If Connecticut were to install tolls, roughly 40 percent of the revenue would come from out-of-state drivers and trucking companies. We’re leaving money on the table at a time when we can’t afford to do so. The other option, euphemistically termed “Prioritize Progress,” plays the very same game of appealing to voters today by burdening taxpayers of tomorrow. It calls for $65 billion in infrastructure bonding over the course of 30 years. Those bonds will increase in interest by 3 to 5 percent every year, increasing the cost over time. Sound familiar?

I may be new to politics, but I understand the political expediency of promising major transportation improvements at little or no cost to current taxpayers. But that’s exactly the sort of thinking that got us into our current fiscal mess. As a state Senator, I’m determined to break Hartford’s habit of legislating narrowly and exclusively for the present. Instead, let’s plan carefully and responsibly for the future. Let’s break the cycle of short-sightedness and make some tough but necessary decisions. Simply put, let’s give future taxpayers a chance to succeed rather than saddling them with debt before they leave the cradle.

Sen. Will Haskell (D-22) represents Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton.