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No longer 'special,' tolls top agenda of legislature's regular session

Hartford — If Friday’s scene at the Legislative Office Building was any indication, the General Assembly’s 2020 session could be a bumpy ride, at least in the early stages.

Tolls, you know.

After scrapping plans Thursday night to hold a special session to vote on a plan for tolling tractor-trailer trucks at a dozen highway bridges, Democratic Party leaders Friday said they hoped to pass the proposal the week of Feb. 10. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont released a statement that night saying he was looking forward to it.

The special session would have been Monday and Tuesday, with the regular session’s mandated opening set for Wednesday.

So, Friday served as sort of an unofficial opening of the session, featuring a somewhat unusual public hearing without the legislature officially in session. It could be the only such hearing the truck-tolling bill gets if Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, opt for “emergency certification” of the measure, a procedure that would enable them to directly send it to the House or Senate.

Passage of the bill likely will have to be achieved without any Republican support.

“This bill is the worst tolling bill I have seen put forth” and “beyond irresponsible,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said at a GOP news conference held prior to the public hearing.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and others joined Fasano in attacking the Democrats’ handiwork, expressing particular ire over a provision of the bill establishing a Transportation Policy Council that Fasano said would have “limitless power” to add tolls, change rates (now set at between $6 and $13 per toll gantry), eventually extend tolling to cars and shut down highway exit ramps to force vehicles to go through tolls.

Klarides said the bill was “sloppily done just to get tolls on the books” and was plagued by “loophole after loophole.”

Republicans have proposed financing the state’s badly needed infrastructure improvements through a no-tolls alternative that would divert a portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and rely on federal borrowing programs.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti outlined the truck-tolling plan at the public hearing, which was conducted by the legislature’s Transportation Committee, whose members sought to dispel Republican claims that the proposed tolling eventually would be extended to passenger vehicles.

Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, the committee co-chairman, said that could happen only if the legislature took further action at some point "down the road."

Hours into the hearing, members of the public had yet to be given an opportunity to speak. Among those waiting was Matt Beaudoin, owner of Mystic Knotwork in downtown Mystic, who said he was there to protest the imposition of tolls because of the effect they would have on small businesses and tourism in southeastern Connecticut.

“Our economy is so dependent on (Interstate-95) traffic,” he said. “Everything we need arrives by truck. I have to get what I need from Rhode Island, where trucks already are being tolled and the cost is being passed on to consumers. Small businesses are not going to be able to survive in Connecticut.”

The 12 bridges where electronic toll gantries would be placed include two on I-95 in the region: at Route 161 in East Lyme and on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge between Groton and New London.

“In my district, there’s overwhelming opposition to tolls,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who warned that the topic could consume the entire legislative session if the parties can't come to an agreement.

“Reinforcing our infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan thing,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. “We all agree we have to do it; the issue is how to pay for it.”

He told radio talk show host Lee Elci last week that some Democrats are not sold on the bill.

“Let’s remember, if the Democrats want this, they have the majority in both houses and they can pass anything they want,” Formica said. “They have to convince people on their own side. It’s not just us saying it’s not the way to go, it’s bipartisan opposition.”

Gaming revisited (again)

Southeastern Connecticut’s senators — Somers, Formica and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who supports the truck-tolling bill — are on the same page when it comes to casino expansion and the legalization of sports betting, another perennial issue the legislature will revisit.

Osten this past week unveiled a draft of the latest version of an ambitious proposal directing Lamont to negotiate amended gaming agreements with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. The bill specifies that those agreements would grant the tribes the exclusive right to provide online gaming and sports wagering in the state, both online and at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, as well as at lesser, tribally owned facilities that have yet to be built in East Windsor, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and one other yet-to-be-determined municipality.

The bill would authorize the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to sell its draw-game tickets online and provide ikeno.

Osten, in rewriting the bill she first submitted a year ago, concentrated on the distribution of gaming revenues as much as on the expansion of gaming. She proposed that the gaming revenues generated for the state be shared in greater amounts with Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, especially those in southeastern Connecticut, home to the tribal casinos.

Formica said he was impressed that members of all four legislative caucuses — Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House — already were on board with Osten’s bill.

“People want sports betting, other states are doing it, and their compacts with the state provide for the tribes to do it,” he said. “As for casino expansion, the more you have of it, the more watered down it gets. (MGM) Springfield’s a testament to that.”

Massachusetts casinos in Springfield and Everett, outside Boston, have failed to meet gaming revenue projections since opening, suggesting saturation in the Northeast.

Formica agreed with the idea of creating “entertainment zones” in the state’s biggest cities, saying the state needs to be more mindful of its urban areas and the need for them to accommodate millennials.

“They want housing, nightlife, activities,” he said. “I suggested Bridgeport should get some of this offshore wind industry,” which is coming to New London.

Formica, the ranking member of the legislature’s Energy Committee, said the state must continue focusing on developing offshore wind power and other sources of energy and energy-storage capacity. Somewhat coincidentally, he noted, the Connecticut Port Authority’s involvement in that area has called attention to the need for greater oversight of quasi-public agencies.

Questions about the authority’s spending practices and operations prompted the state to conduct hearings last year.

Formica said he will reintroduce a bill seeking to reclassify the mileage allowances lawmakers receive for commuting to and from Hartford. The allowances, now considered income, ought to be treated as reimbursements, he said, and should not be subject to taxation or part of pension calculations.

Somers also said she expects lawmakers to review quasi-public agencies this session. A leader in the crackdown on the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative following the Kentucky Derby controversy, she said she’ll seek to ensure ratepayers don’t end up footing the legal bills for the alleged transgressors.

The ranking member of the Public Health Committee, Somers expects more discussion and possibly action this session on bills seeking to remove the religious exemption from school immunization requirements; further regulate e-cigarettes, including banning menthol-flavored cartridges; curb the marketing of vaping products; and legalize recreational marijuana use.

Somers said she wants to revisit the state’s bottle bill to address so-called "nips," the miniature alcoholic beverage containers that she said are increasingly being found discarded in parks and other public areas. Adding a deposit to them might be a solution, she said.

She will advocate for a pilot program that would turn food waste into compost through a process known as aerobic digestion, reducing municipal waste-removal costs, and expects to address special education costs, skilled nursing facilities and allowances for nursing-home residents.

Osten, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said she’s putting in some 30 bills this year, a short session ending in May. It’s less than half as many bills as she submitted a year ago.

Among her initiatives are measures that would require schools to teach Native American history; require property owners to disclose the presence of dams when they sell; help small, rural towns defray the cost of resident state trooper pensions; address rules bearing on bail bondsmen’s right to enter homes; and curb sex-trafficking by preventing hotels and motels from renting rooms by the hour.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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