The other day I received an email from a reader telling me I was missing the boat on several points in a recent column supporting the implementation of highway tolls in Connecticut. He had a point.
One of the reasons for writing a column is to persuade, certainly, but it’s also to start a conversation, to prompt the exchange of ideas. As a result you can change your mind, and it can go both ways. One of the fearful things about today’s political climate, with an example that emanates poorly from the top, is the perception that changing your mind is an illustration of weakness — so stubbornly clinging to a stupid idea in order to save face persists, to the detriment of progress.
Getting back to tolls … I’d cited an AAA poll in January that revealed support for the implementation of tolls in the state, to a percentage (as in 47 percent) that was remarkable considering Connecticut residents already pay enough, as in enough is enough, as in too much. I thought it meant that residents were smart enough to recognize a problem when it presented itself and stalwart enough to do something to fix it. I still feel that way, at least about the state’s denizens.
But what I misunderestimated — a phrase I use in honor of former president George Bush the younger, whose malapropisms and other word gymnastics I found fodder for ridicule at the time but now find charming, considering the feeble-minded language of the current occupier of the Oval Office …
Getting back to tolls … what I misunderestimated was the degree to which the people of the state have lost trust in state lawmakers. That same January poll indicated that while residents may support the idea of returning tolls to state highways, they also wanted to make sure the money went to where it was supposed to go, as in just on transportation.
This is indicative of a crisis of confidence, and in an election season it ought to be at the forefront of debate. What can be done to restore the public’s trust in lawmakers?
There’s indication that they just don’t get it. Many years ago now I wanted to know why Connecticut was subject to an embarrassing statistic: While the state was second only to Rhode Island in how much it taxes tobacco products, it failed miserably when it came to dedicating those tax dollars to smoking cessation programs. Even big tobacco-producing states which taxed much less devoted more money to such programs. A high-ranking Connecticut lawmaker told me it went into the General Fund, as if that was an answer (for me it wasn’t, obviously).
More recently, a coalition that includes environmental groups asked a federal judge to stop the state from moving $145 million in energy efficiency fees to help balance the state budget. The money is supposed to help low- to moderate-income families save on energy bills. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told The Associated Press the so-called “energy sweeps” were “pushed by legislative Republicans” in bipartisan budget talks. It was part of the two-year bipartisan budget approved last year. You can quibble about which political party is to blame, but the bottom line is that it’s the type of behavior that shreds confidence among constituents.
Two years ago we celebrated (pardon the sarcasm) the quarter century mark of the state income tax, an adoption “with disastrous results,” as an opinion piece in Forbes put it in August 2016. “The institution of Connecticut’s income tax was followed by a marked uptick in the size of state government,” said the article by Patrick Gleason. “From 1991 to 2014, state government spending in Connecticut grew 71 percent faster than the rate of inflation, while population only grew by 9 percent during that same period.”
Will adopting highway tolls just make all of that worse? Proponents have an election season to make the case that it won’t, but don’t expect anything but a tough audience.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org