HARTFORD — Two years after a successful campaign by state Republicans to halt the Transportation and Climate Initiative as a regressive gas tax, opponents again warned that a new bill would give the Lamont administration the power to advance the program, this time without legislative approval.
But while the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection declined a request to clarify what powers exactly would be granted by the measure, Save the Sound attorney Charles Rothenberger says it has nothing to do with the earlier initiative, which died in the legislature in 2021.
According to Rothenberger, the specter of TCI is being used as a “stalking horse” to raise public fears without making a substantive argument.
The bill — up for a vote in the legislature’s Environment Committee on Friday — grants DEEP authority to adopt regulations and programs to help the state reach the administration’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2001 levels by 2050. It specifically grants the department the authority to set up “market-based compliance mechanisms developed independently or with interested states and Canadian provinces.”
Republican leaders State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford said that provision would let DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes set up carbon taxes or “fuel tax programs” like TCI without legislative approval — calling the bill “fuel taxes in disguise” and “TCI on steroids” in a statement.
In response to a request by CT Examiner for comment and clarification, the department didn’t directly address the claim that the bill would allow Commissioner Katie Dykes to impose a program like TCI without legislative approval. Instead, the department said the bill would provide regulatory tools that neighboring states have to put in place programs that will help the state “walk the walk” to achieve its emissions goals.
The department said the state is not on track to meet emissions goals, and it needs more tools to get there. Those tools would “continue to be subject to legislative approval and a public stakeholder process,” the department replied in a statement.
“The consequences of not meeting those targets are dire, as outlined in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as its previous reports, and evidenced in the weather-related impacts and public health and economic costs already being experienced by Connecticut residents, acutely so by the most vulnerable in our state,” the statement said.
Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association — a trade group representing fuel oil and gasoline businesses — said that “market-based compliance mechanisms” are essentially taxes that aim to reduce emissions by raising the price of fuel so people use less of it.
He said that could take the form of a cap-and-trade program with California or a Canadian province, or it could be the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI — a multistate “cap-and-invest” program Lamont and Dykes pushed hard for in 2021 as a way to pay for clean transportation projects,
Opponents — including Herb, Republican lawmakers and the conservative-leaning Yankee Institute labeled TCI a gas tax – a view that also killed its support among some Senate Democrats, who said they couldn’t support a regressive tax increase that would burden the poor.
But Herb said the real problem with the language of this bill is that it gives the commissioner unilateral power to join these multistate agreements. He said that means Dykes could decide on her own to implement TCI, when it should be up to the legislature to make that decision.
“It’s passing legislation that would hand over that power to a commissioner who was not shy about her support for TCI and her belief in these cap and tax programs,” Herb said. “This should be a decision made by legislators who have to look their constituents in the eye and explain why the price of gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil is going to go up.”
But Rothenberger said it’s not possible for DEEP to unilaterally set up programs like TCI, even with the language in the bill. The power to levy fees and taxes and to appropriate money sits with the legislature, not with DEEP, he said.
And Connecticut requires that all new regulations be approved by the legislative Regulation Review Committee, where the public can comment on proposed regulations, Rothenberger said. The full legislature also has the power to pass laws to invalidate any regulation, and nothing in this bill removes that power, he said.
According to Rothenberger, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont already have similar language on the books. Byt their laws go even further, he said, ordering their state governments to make regulations to reach emissions goals.
“This language is really only giving the agency the tools it needs to do what the legislature has already mandated it do — achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the legislature established,” he said.
But even if DEEP wanted to move forward with TCI without the legislature, Rothenberger said, “TCI is a regional program. No state is going to go it alone on a program like that.”
A group of 13 eastern states and the District of Columbia discussed a framework for the program for a decade — beginning in Connecticut during the administration of Gov. Jodi Rell in 2010. But just four signed on to a pact in 2020 to develop the program — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and D.C.
Rhode Island and Massachusetts later dropped the program, and TCI failed to win approval in the Connecticut legislature.
But Herb said it’s clear to him that the language would allow TCI to move forward.
He said it was convenient that TCI wasn’t brought up last session, but is being brought up again in a more opaque way than the press blitz Lamont and Dykes went on to push for TCI in 2021.
“So you can sign on to a California program or a Canadian province — what are we doing?” Herb said. “So the DEEP commissioner can enter into an agreement with Quebec to run a cap and trade program? That, to me, is frightening that we would cede power to another state or a foreign country that could increase gasoline costs, increase the cost of living, increase the impact of inflation.”