Tolls, taxes, jobs: Top concerns at legislative forum

What’s on the minds of Shelton voters in 2019? In a forum with state legislators held Monday, Feb. 25, at City Hall, the governor’s statewide toll proposal was the number-one concern — with the state’s fiscal crisis and infrastructure needs close runner ups.
The forum was sponsored by state Reps. Jason Perillo and Ben McGorty and state Sen. Kevin Kelly, all of whom represent Shelton in Hartford. The governor’s budget would increase statewide spending by $367 million, and all three reps described that as the wrong approach. Instead, they said the governor should be proposing decreases in spending.
“Now that the governor’s budget has been made public, this is an opportunity to get feedback from you,” said Perillo, “on what you like — and what you don’t like.”
The lightning rod in that proposal has been Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to install 82 toll gantries along all interstate highways in Connecticut, as well as on Routes 2, 8 and 9. The governor has pitched the plan as a way to bring a reliable, recurring source of revenue to the state, and the plan would reportedly raise as much as $1 billion each year.
However beneficial to the state coffers, the plan has proved wildly unpopular with residents — including the Shelton group. Besides lamenting the implementation of an additional tax, residents were skeptical of whether tolls will truly benefit Connecticut highways.
There’s one silver lining in the toll proposal, said McGorty.
“There’s going to have to be a lot of work before it actually happens,” McGorty said.
“Don’t expect to see it until the election of 2022,” Perillo chimed in.
One resident questioned whether the tolls could bill just non-residents. Such a plan is already in effect in Colorado. Because tolls would be collected electronically, the state could do that — but the more likely option is that non-residents would be charged higher amounts. The system could also contain a congestion-pricing scheme, with higher tolls assessed at busy times of day.
McGorty pointed out that Connecticut is the sole state in the Northeast that has no tolls.
“We currently get Federal dollars because we don’t have tolls,” McGorty said. That revenue would go away, he added, if tolls become a reality.
Kelly pointed out that the budget reflects a focus by the governor and state Democrats on revenue — instead of trimming spending.
“There was a great deal of creativity in this budget, most centered on new ways to raise taxes,” Kelly said.
In addition to tolls, the proposed budget would tax items that have until now been tax exempt, such as food and legal services.
“The governor’s budget does look to cut borrowing — which is a good thing,” Kelly added.”You really can’t cut spending until you stop borrowing money.”
Now that the budget has been submitted by the governor, it is in the hands of the legislature and the various committees that examine different aspects of it. There actually are two budget proposals: a spending budget, which is now under review by the legislative Appropriations Committee, and revenue budget, reviewed by the Finance Committee.
“The ball is in the legislative court,” said Kelly. “So now is the time to speak up, including writing to members of those committees.”
Another attendee questioned whether the revenue collected from tolls would be subject to a “lock-box” requirement, directing these dollars to go to highway improvements.
“Five years from now, (we might learn) it’s going to something else,” Kelly said. “That’s a concern.”
In a similar fashion, the governor’s budget contains a new family-leave policy that Kelly described as a hidden tax. Initially, it would be funded by a one-half percent deduction from workers’ paychecks. While the goal is worthwhile, Kelly said there are less taxing ways to accomplish the same result.
“We (Republicans) talked about instead offering tax credits to businesses who choose to offer this benefit,” Kelly said. “Simply adding another tax is not the way to do it.”
One other drawback with the governor’s proposal is that it would allow workers to take time off for a wide range of reasons, and at 100 percent of their regular pay. These factors will make the new program unaffordable by the already-strapped state government.
“It is going to have to increase it (the deduction) eventually,” Kelly said.
Perillo said such programs ultimately make the state unattractive for business.
“There comes a point where taxes are raised to the point of having a diminished return,” Perillo said. “I’d rather have more people here making more money — and paying taxes — than to raise taxes on the people who already live here.”
Kelly said the family-leave proposal is just one example of many, which in total make the stake unaffordable to businesses looking for places to operate. He was especially critical of proposals on both the state and federal level that would nationalize the U.S. health care system.
Doing so, Kelly said, would effectively eliminate the health-insurance industry.
“Insurance accounts for 3 percent of our work force here in Connecticut, and our government wants to put it out of business,” Kelly said. “When we do that, what message are we sending to other industries about doing business in Connecticut?”