Reality is Sinking Car Ban; And Unfix the ‘Fixed Costs’

Chris Powell

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Hardly had the General Assembly’s Regulation Review Committee, the energy and environmental protection commissioner and Governor Lamont withdrawn a regulation that would have banned the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in Connecticut after 2035 when the idea’s political correctness crashed into more reality.

While Lamont insisted that a ban by 2035 would remain the state’s objective and noted that it has the support of many states besides ever-nuttier, dysfunctional, and expensive California, where the idea originated, the idea was losing support in New Jersey, a state just as Democratic and politically correct as Connecticut.

The New Jersey Senate’s deputy majority leader, Paul Sarlo, who is also chairman of the Senate’s appropriations committee, told the New Jersey Business and Industry Association not to worry about Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to ban sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

“I know everybody in this room fully understands the need to invest in green energy and move in that direction,” Sarlo said. “However, to be practical about it, 2035 is not happening.”

Sarlo’s reasons were the same as those offered by the Republican state legislators who had mobilized opinion against the ban in Connecticut: that the necessary expansion of the state’s electric grid and electric car-charging infrastructure could not be ready in time, that the costs, while unknown, would be huge, that there was no plan to pay for them, and that, whatever the plan, a big new burden would fall on the people.

Meanwhile Consumer Reports magazine found that electric cars are much less reliable and require much more repair than conventional gas-powered cars and dual-power cars, or “hybrids.”

The magazine noted that electric-car technology is new and expected to improve, and maybe it will bring the costs of electric cars down, making them practical for people of modest means. But then government isn’t going to promise such improvement and cost reduction by any particular time. 

So for state government to mandate conversion to an electric-car system when the costs are unclear and the technology uncertain would be crazy, since political correctness doesn’t pay any bills.

Some people say that mass conversion to electric cars is inevitable. But if it’s inevitable, it will happen by itself, quite without government’s requiring it before it’s practical.

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Why does government in Connecticut only become more expensive despite the improvements it is always claiming to implement?

A hint was provided last month by the state Office of Fiscal Analysis in its new fiscal accountability report on state government, which, according to Connecticut Inside Investigator, found that the share of the state budget that pays for what are called “fixed costs” remains at 53%.

“Fixed costs” are costs that by law have been placed outside the ordinary process of discretionary budgeting — costs like Medicaid, interest on debt, state government employee and teacher pension and retiree health benefits, legal settlements, and certain payments to hospitals.

As a practical matter, “fixed costs” are actually a much bigger share of the budget, since while the basic compensation of state employees is not considered a “fixed cost,” its expense is determined by union contract and never declines even when the number of government employees is reduced. The cost of the remaining employees goes up to consume any savings.

The “fixed cost” percentage of the state budget was only 37% in 2006. Its rise to 53% is to some extent a measure of the decline in democracy in Connecticut. Indeed, to become a “fixed cost” — a cost outside the ordinary democratic process — often seems to be the highest aspiration of those involved with state government.

With “fixed costs” and government employee compensation now constituting the great majority of state government expense, and with the discretionary portion of the budget constituting only a minority, the only way of controlling expense is to reduce the “fixed costs” and the costs qualifying as “fixed.”

But Connecticut’s elected officials love “fixed costs,” because “fixed costs” let officials shrug at rising expense and claim that there’s nothing they can do about it.

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Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. (CPowell@cox.net)