Despite committee inaction, tolls and pension cost-sharing proposals remain alive

Despite committee inaction, tolls and pension cost-sharing proposals remain alive



They’re arguably two of the biggest revenue-raising proposals pending before the legislature.

Yet when the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee wrapped up its work late Wednesday for the 2019 session, it hadn’t acted either on tolls, or whether to bill municipalities for a portion of skyrocketing teacher pension costs.

Leaders of the Democrat-controlled committee said late Wednesday that both issues are far from dead as the full General Assembly hits the home stretch before its June 5 adjournment date.

Neither bill was ready for a vote now, and both likely will remain works-in-progress for weeks to come as negotiations continue among legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

“We do still have a month remaining and sometimes issues take more time,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, House chairman of the finance panel.

The question of pension cost-sharing has been controversial since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first proposed it in 2017, Fonfara said.

And if the legislature ever hopes to resolve its long-running dispute over how to finance an overdue rebuild of its transportation infrastructure, he added, the best bet is to bring forward a well-crafted, complete proposal.

“The public deserves to know what it would cost, not only to keep our infrastructure system on a steady course and run it as efficiently as possible, but also to to make the major infrastructure improvements that we need,” he said.

The legislature’s 23 committees have staggered deadlines to act on the various bills they’ve raised. The first committee deadlines came in mid-March and the last two — for the Finance and Appropriations committees — arrive at the end of this week.

But modifications to bills — and even new concepts entirely — continue to be developed after those deadlines. This is especially true when it comes to fiscal matters.

When it comes to contributions to the teachers’ pension system, the question being asked is whether towns should share responsibility for the fastest-growing expense in state government.

Between 1939 and 2010, Connecticut massively under-funded its pensions for teachers.

Connecticut’s punishment for these fiscal sins, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is a harsh one: the state’s annual payments would grow from just over $1 billion at that time to more than $6 billion by 2032.

The projected cost next fiscal year is $1.39 billion, but Lamont wants lawmakers to reduce it by refinancing the payment schedule. Contributions still would grow over the next 13 years, but not as much as originally planned. The downside?  Taxpayers after 2033 would have to make up that difference, plus interest.

The governor has also proposed billing municipalities annually for a share, beginning with $73 million over the next two fiscal years combined.

This represents only a fraction of the overall cost, but municipal leaders say they fear it’s only the start of a larger trend.

“We know the issues the state is facing and the fear among small towns is that the local share would go up year after year,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small  Towns.

Lamont says Connecticut really has only one option, meanwhile, to finance a long-term rebuild of its aging, overcrowded transportation system — and that’s tolls.

But the governor still is working to build support among his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate for this option.

Finance committee members and others said they expect the administration to revise its plan for electronic tolling over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, the committee passed a bill to establish a new transportation planning commission charged with creating a 30-year vision for Connecticut’s highways, bridges, rail lines and airports.

Some legislators have said this bill could be amended in the future to include an electronic tolling plan. But for now it is simply a planning measure.

The group also would be charged with exploring the best ways to pay for such a rebuild.

Though a majority of Republicans on the finance panel voted for this bill, GOP lawmakers — on the committee and off of it — remain almost unanimous in their opposition to tolls.

As a courtesy gesture, the Democrat-controlled finance committee also adopted a bill to implement the Republican alternative to tolls, a measure dubbed “Prioritize Progress.”

Some legislators have said this bill could be amended in the future to include an electronic tolling plan. But for now it is simply a planning measure.


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