With tolls out, Lamont eyes ‘risky’ GOP plan
HARTFORD — If he’s disappointed at continual rejections of his 10-year transportation plan by fellow Democrats, Gov. Ned Lamont now has a chance to form an unusual coalition with Republicans.
Lamont is being wooed by Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, whose caucus supports most of the governor’s 10-year transportation improvement plan. On Thursday, Fasano offered an alternative to the controversial and now-dead scheme for 14 highway tolls.
But while generally supportive, the governor’s initial assessment was skeptical because Republicans want to use about half of the state’s nearly $3-billion emergency reserves.
“While I appreciate Senator Fasano’s proposal to partially fund much-needed infrastructure investments, taking money out of the Rainy Day Fund is a risky proposition that requires serious evaluation,” Lamont said in a late-afternoon statement.
Lamont suffered a setback Wednesday when Senate Democrats made it clear in a closed-door meeting that the administration’s $320 million-a-year tolling plan did not have support. The governor reiterated that he’s willing to discuss alternatives.
Still, the possibility of a special legislative session on transportation in 2019 was rekindled Thursday.
Fasano and several other GOP senators rolled out a 10-year, $18 billion plan that would use $1.5-billion of the Rainy Day Fund to pay down some unfunded pension obligations, then use savings on state pension payments to help juggle more than $500 million a year in low-interest federal loans. They also said the state could fund some projects in his “CT2030” program using revenue from the dedicated transportation budget.
That’s smaller than Lamont’s $21 billion plan, which would have been partly financed with 14 tolls scattered throughout the state — and faced opposition from Democratic lawmakers fearful of the issue biting them in next year’s 2020 races for the General Assembly.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said Thursday there was no tension between his Democratic caucus and Lamont, but the tolls are a major impediment to approving the decade-long plan.
“To a person, there was a lot of support for CT 2030, and just not that particular way of funding it,” Duff said, describing the closed-door majority caucus’s Wednesday meeting with Lamont.
Duff, along with Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said that the Republican proposal, which Fasano said was developed in recent weeks, was worthy of scrutiny.
“I’m glad that various caucuses are putting out plans so everyone recognizes how important it is for our economy,” Duff said in an interview, stressing he had not yet seen the details. “As I’ve said all along the best transportation plan is a bipartisan one. And I hope in the end it is bipartisan.”
“It’s been a roller-coaster for sure,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislature’s transportation committee. “We tried to meet Republicans halfway but they were weren’t willing. I’m not sure I would endorse the Republican proposal at this time.”
Using the rainy day fund
The GOP’s “FASTR CT” would rely on an appointed board to vet individual projects, about 25 percent of which would be supported by various low-interest federal programs — loans that are also part of Lamont’s plan.
Fasano showed the GOP plan to Lamont’s staff on Wednesday, after the meeting with Senate Democrats.
“I just don’t see that’s the way the wind is blowing at this point,” Fasano, R-North Haven, told reporters during a nearly one-hour briefing in the State Capitol Thursday.
Patrick Sasser of Stamford, who heads the group No Tolls CT, saw the combined collapse of Lamont’s plan in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the release of the GOP proposal, as a welcome coincidence.
“We're glad to see a transportation plan that doesn't rely on instituting another tax on the people of Connecticut with tolls,” Sasser said in a written release. “Obviously, there are several aspects of the Senate Republicans’ plan that will have to be hashed out by lawmakers regarding the Rainy Day Fund and federal borrowing, but we see this plan as a good step toward reaching a bipartisan solution that doesn't levy another tax on the working people of Connecticut.”
The Senate Republicans’ no-tolls alternative, called Fiscal Accountability & Sustainable Transportation Reform CT, would transfer $1.5 billion from the the $2.7-billion Rainy Day Fund, and invest it in the underfunded state employee retirement plan. That would free up other funds by reducing mandatory state payments to the pension fund. That money, in turn, would be used to help stabilize the Special Transportation Fund, which would also be supported by the state’s tax on car sales and $100 million in new annual state bonding.
Fasano said federal officials who want states to be able to show a dedicated revenue source to pay back loans — one reason why Lamont proposed tolls — would accept the GOP plan, so the state would be eligible for the Build America program loans.
Broad support for projects
Looney, the Senate’s top Democrat, said he and his staff are reviewing the proposal with the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, which also helped Fasano develop the GOP initiative.
In an interview, Looney agreed that there was broad-based support for the governor’s spending plan, with its detailed road and bridge projects and rail improvements, including enhanced service on the Danbury and New Canaan lines with direct trips to Grand Central Station, for the first time; along with a goal of reducing the length of time for train rides to New York by 10-to-15 minutes.
“Our lack of consensus came down to how to fund it,” Looney said.
A follow-up meeting with the governor originally scheduled for Thursday was postponed. Looney said if Republicans and Democrats can come together quickly, there could be a special session on transportation either before the end of 2019 or in January of next year, before the General Assembly reconvenes for its short budget-adjustment session starting Feb. 5.
“It may be difficult to thread the needle in calendar 2019, but it is still possible to get something done,” Looney said.
The transportation package could piggyback on an expected special legislative session on an estimated $30-million deal to reduce taxes on the state’s hospitals.
The Republican transportation plan would still leave at least $1.2 billion in emergency reserves, as a fiscal backstop in case of an economic downturn. A newly reformed Transportation Strategy Board, made up of business and labor leaders as well as transportation experts, would closely review projects and recommend funding priorities.
“They have to prove that these projects are worthy,” Fasano said. “There is a lot of flexibility in this plan.”
For the sake of the new proposal, Fasano said he would leave the governor’s priorities in place, including the 14 bridges where he proposed tolls. He said about $500 million in so-called placeholders — lower priority projects including signage replacements in the DOT — seemed to be larded in Lamont’s plan.
The governor said growing the state economy is his top goal, and that transportation infrastructure is crucial.
“My plan, CT2030, provides a comprehensive, multi-modal vision for Connecticut’s transportation and economic future.” Lamont said. “It invests $15.6 billion in making our infrastructure safer and $5.5 billion in transformative enhancement projects that allow Connecticut residents to spend more time with their families and less time on the road.”
The GOP idea would invest $2.4 billion in the enhancements, less than half of Lamont’s total.
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