HARTFORD – Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday vowed to press ahead with an effort to phase out gas-powered vehicles, one day after Gov. Ned Lamont withdrew a proposal to tie the state of Connecticut to California standards banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.
Republicans, who have railed against the move as rushed and ignorant of the costs, claimed victory for halting the regulations, which were set to be reviewed by the Legislative Regulation Review Committee on Tuesday before Lamont pulled them, facing rejection.
Senate Democratic Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said at a press conference Tuesday the move was “merely a speed bump on our way to more electric vehicles” in Connecticut. But the stalemate highlights the underlying tension in Hartford, where advocates see air pollution from vehicles as an urgent crisis that needs to be addressed, but face a deadlock with both Republicans and Democrats over the cost of a response.
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes has maintained that the state must address pollution from transportation, which she said is responsible for two-thirds of the air pollution generated within the state’s borders. Poor air quality in the state is harming people’s health, especially people living near highways and industrial zones, according to experts.
Still, attempts at joining with other states in programs aimed to curb emissions have fallen in the legislature over the same concern – cost.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative – a proposed cap-and-trade program among Northeastern states – failed to pass the legislature in 2021 as Republicans successfully branded it as a regressive gas tax, turning enough Democratic lawmakers against it to kill the bill.
State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said the choice is between joining 10 other states that have adopted the California standards, or sticking with less stringent federal standards.
Moving towards the California standards that aim to phase out vehicle emissions is “good policy” that Democrats intend to move forward with, Cohen said. And she said that plan can be bolstered by “unprecedented” federal money available to install new electric vehicle chargers.
But House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said concern about the consumer cost of transitioning to electric vehicles is still a real obstacle within the Democratic caucus. He said there’s a tendency among advocates to wave off critiques or questions about how poor residents will be able to afford the transition to electric vehicles. But issues of affordability, technology, and the cost of electricity to charge electric vehicles have to be addressed, said Ritter.
“These are real concerns that can’t be shooed away, they can’t be wished away,” Ritter said. “They have to be worked on. You have to show people, and demonstrate with actual science and showing dollars and cents how cars are becoming cheaper and where they’re going to be.”
House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the concern about cost goes beyond the sticker price for electric cars and chargers – it’s the cost of upgrading electric infrastructure to handle higher demand. Eversource Connecticut President Steve Sullivan has said that would take “significant long-term investment.”
Candlora said the Democrats do not have the infrastructure built yet to support the electric vehicle plan.
“The federal money that [Democrats] referred to does not go towards building out that grid. That is money that has to come out of Connecticut residents,” he said.
Still, Democrats said the shift to electric vehicles is an inevitable market trend, and rejecting the 2035 goal just eliminates a target for the state to plan around. Ritter said government needs ambitious plans or they will drift and will not achieve the end goal. Without a goal on electric vehicles, he said, Connecticut will fall behind other states as the market shifts.
Advocates have said the intent of states signing on to California’s emissions standards and goal of phasing out gas cars by 2035 is to create a large enough market for auto manufacturers to shift towards electric vehicles.
Lamont pointed out that General Motors has committed to phasing out its gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035. But Candelora said that if the market is already going in that direction then the state should follow the market without banning new gas-powered cars.
“We don’t need to impose all these artificial barricades,” Candelora said. “If we have incentives in place, people can still buy these vehicles. We’re not banning electric vehicles.”
Ritter said Democratic leaders would have to talk to their caucus before moving forward on any specific proposals. The caucus is meeting next week, about two months before the February start of the 2024 legislative session, which Ritter said reflects the high priority of the issue.
He also suggested that Connecticut could follow the lead of Colorado and New Mexico, which set a standard of 82 percent of new vehicles sold in their states being zero-emission by 2032, instead of committing all the way to 100 percent by 2035.
Some lawmakers also brought up forming committees to track costs of electric vehicles and the state’s targets for electric vehicle chargers – and possibly adding more subsidies for chargers, he said.
Candelora said some Republican concerns could be addressed by requiring periodic reviews of the state’s progress towards achieving the electric vehicle goals, though he said any conversation has to begin with bringing in the electric utilities.
But there was outward optimism from both sides that they could find a path forward. House Democratic Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he saw room for compromise with the Republicans. And Candelora said it was a positive sign that Democrats were acknowledging cost as a real concern.
Candelora acknowledged that as long as it’s a priority of the Lamont administration, electric vehicles will be a priority for the legislature.
Lamont made it clear his high priority was to keep Connecticut from going back on a plan it had already committed to.
“As a business person, one thing that drives us crazy is when governments set clear standards, clear rules, say, ‘This is where you’re going to go, you can invest accordingly, you can count on it’ — until you can’t, until [the governments] change their mind,” Lamont said.
This story has been updated