A program that would increase gas prices and raise revenue for projects to reduce pollution from fuel-burning vehicles became one of the most contentious issues in Hartford as the legislative session came to a close last month — and while the legislature is signaling the plan has limited support, it’s not a fight the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont is ready to give up.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, would force fuel wholesalers to buy allowances for the amount of pollution generated by their fuel, which proponents say would generate a game-changing $1 billion over 10 years for projects that would address vehicle pollution that has caused health issues like asthma and heart disease that fall disproportionately on Black and brown people. Opponents say the program amounts to a gas tax that will place its costs disproportionately on poorer drivers.
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes said that Connecticut has made progress in reducing emissions from the production of electricity with programs approved by lawmakers and paid for by electric customers, but transportation emissions have still endured.
“We are experiencing, as we speak [Wednesday], it is 99 degrees at Bradley Airport, 116 degrees out in Portland, Oregon. The climate crisis is upon us,” she said.
Dykes said her job is to put Connecticut on a path to achieve the legislature’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent compared to 2001 levels by 2030. She said her department is also seeking to finally get Connecticut in compliance with federal ozone standards.
“In order to do my job, I need regulatory authority. I need the tools to achieve those emissions reductions,” Dykes said. “Unlike in other states, like in Massachusetts, where the General Assembly has enacted broad regulatory authority to go along with the targets it set, here in Connecticut, we do not have that authorization.”
Lamont signed a memorandum of understanding with Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. last year to join the states into the regional carbon cap program. Massachusetts and D.C. did not need legislative approval to join the program, but Connecticut and Rhode Island did.
Neither has received that approval, as the Rhode Island legislative session adjourned on Wednesday with the bill overwhelmingly passing the state Senate 38-7, but not being brought up for a vote in the state House.
Neither of the chambers in the Connecticut General Assembly raised the issue for a vote, which Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said was because there were not enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate, as Democratic Senators had concerns about the cost the program would put on drivers – which was estimated to be less than 9 cents a gallon in the first year.
Several advocates for TCI have told CT Examiner they believe there were enough votes in the Senate to authorize the program, but Looney said that isn’t the case. Looney said he had 12 Democrats willing to vote for TCI, and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said he expected all of the Republicans would have voted against it.
“Regardless of what people may have said in general conversations about support for the concept, when I talk specifically to my members, I try to get a sense of where people were. We were far away from having 18 willing to vote for it in the way precisely proposed by the governor,” Looney said.
Some senators were undecided, like Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who said he was on the fence about TCI because he supported the goals of the program, but didn’t think it was a year when lawmakers should be increasing costs for people.
Kelly said the program amounts to a gas tax because it’s simply a cost imposed by the government that would increase what customers pay at the pump. Advocates bristle at the suggestion that it is a tax, and Dykes said that placing the cost of the program directly on wholesalers sends a signal that they need to make changes like increasing the mix of lower-carbon biofuels in their fuel blends.
Many lawmakers aren’t buying that argument, and Looney said they have to assume that any cost placed on wholesalers will be passed on to consumers, saying the wholesalers are “not altruistic.”
Looney said the concern among those in the Democratic caucus who would not support TCI was that poorer people with older vehicles would pay a disproportionate amount of the cost, even though there was broad support for the concept of TCI.
“If the administration can come up with some way that reflects a different mechanism for funding the program, I think there would be overwhelming support for it, at least in the Democratic caucus,” Looney said.
Dykes said the administration is still committed to TCI, and to promoting the benefits of “investing reasonably in clean transportation programs” – naming a few examples, including: converting buses to electric, expanding transit options, and investing in transit oriented development, building out electric vehicle charging stations, and providing more affordable electric vehicle rebates.
“I haven’t heard anyone raise another option that has the kind of positive attributes that TCI does,” Dykes said.