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Connecticut Lawmakers Debate Transportation Emissions Bill

Democrats say the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional cap and trade plan to reduce vehicle emissions, will help fight climate change. But Republicans are calling the plan just another gas tax.

(TNS) — When Richard Hudson heard about a Republican-led rally against climate change legislation, he knew he had to be there.

Hudson and his wife, Jane, were veterans of 2019′s toll wars, and they view this new plan as nothing more than a tax on gasoline.

“The average American needs to speak up and stop things like this,” said Richard Hudson, who is 70 and retired from careers that include running a business and teaching elementary school. Hood stood outside a Shell station on Farmington Avenue in Berlin, Conn., on Wednesday afternoon and waved a sign as passing motorists honked their approval.

Climate change is not a top concern of Hudson’s. “Yeah, the environment is important … and we have to take care of it,” he said. “But when you put it against everything else” — he cited homelessness and government corruption as two examples — ”it’s way at the bottom of the list.”

The rally in Berlin is part of a larger effort by Connecticut Republicans to rebrand Gov. Ned Lamont’s Transportation and Climate Initiative as a gas tax. In recent weeks, the party has helped organize local demonstrations across the state in an effort to win public support and block the bill from coming up for a vote in the legislature.

“It’s a huge regressive tax, and the loudest cry comes from low- and middle-income families and retirees,” said Kevin Kelly, the Republican leader in the state Senate. “These are the folks who can’t afford a new electric vehicle, who are driving older cars.”

The Transportation Climate Initiative — or TCI for short — is not a tax. It is a regional cap-and-trade plan to raise money to combat climate change by reducing motor vehicle pollution, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. It requires large gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase allowances to offset the environmental harm caused by combustion of the carbon-based fuels they sell in Connecticut, essentially putting a price tag on pollution.

The money raised through TCI would provide a dedicated fund to pay for “clean transportation,” everything from light rail to electric schoolbuses.

Supporters concede the plan will result a gas price increase of about 5 cents per gallon, but they say the costs will largely be born by wholesalers. Critics disagree, saying the increase will be far higher and will be passed on to consumers at the pump.

Costlier Fuel, More Efficient Transportation

Late last year, Gov. Lamont, a Democrat, signed on to the plan, which seeks to ensure that Connecticut will reduce carbon emissions by at least 26 percent in a 10-year period from 2022 to 2032. He was joined by former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, both Democrats, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. But the measure has stalled in the Connecticut legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats.

By calling TCI a tax, Republicans are using “a classic strategy to kill environmental policies,” said Kenneth Gillingham, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment. “This goes back decades and sometimes it’s a successful approach.”

TCI “will raise the price of using fossil fuels,” he said. “But the revenue that will be raised will be used for more efficient transportation solutions. The revenue will come right back to Connecticut. The state is incentivizing people to stop using the fuels that both lead to climate change and reduce our air quality.”

Public opinion on climate change is shifting, Gillingham said, and perhaps the argument equating environmental policies to tax increases is losing its potency.

“People don’t like to be taxed. That’s understandable,” he said. “People don’t like to pay too much for that gallon of gas at the pump. But the recognition that climate change is a real issue, both in Connecticut and around the country, has changed quite dramatically over the past two decades. The other side — the side that says, ‘I’d rather have slightly more expensive fuel because I know that is necessary to allow me to breathe cleaner air and reduce [the impact of] climate change’ — is clearer now.”

Sen. Christine Cohen, a Democrat from Guilford and co-chairwoman of the legislature’s environment committee, said she is frustrated by Republican attempts to label TCI as a tax.

“The real tax is the tax on human health and our environment,” Cohen said. “We’re seeing increased rates of asthma and other pulmonary conditions as a result of people living in areas of terrible air quality right here within our state. And obviously, we have an existential crisis on our hands with climate change.”

Supporters of the measure need to “reframe the debate,” Cohen said, by focusing on the long term costs of treating illnesses related to poor air quality, the costs of storm damage and other climate-related catastrophes — not to mention the staggering economic and social costs of a warmer planet.

Already ‘Taxed to Death’

Sen. Kelly does not dispute the need to address climate change. “Greenhouse gas, climate change and overall cleaning our environment is necessary,” he said. “I do not disagree with the goal. I disagree with a gas tax. I disagree with the way the [legislature’s Democratic] majority has handled this.”

Asked how the state should fund clean energy programs, Kelly pointed to the federal infrastructure bill now before Congress, which would bring more than $5 billion to Connecticut over the next five years.

“We’re on the eve of Washington sending the state of Connecticut $5.4 billion for climate change, greenhouse gas and environmental cleanup purposes,” he said. “We should be using those funds before we go back to the already taxed-to-death Connecticut population.”

Lawmakers attempted to address the concerns about higher fuel costs by capping any TCI-related increases at 9 cents per gallon. Cohen said she is open to other tweaks to buffer the impact of the legislation on gas prices. She said she hopes lawmakers will convene in a special session of the legislature before the end of the year.

On the sidewalk in Berlin last week, protesters clutching “stop the gas tax” signs were skeptical.

“This TCI thing is never going to work,” said state Rep. Donna Veach, a Republican from Berlin. “The state of Connecticut is taxed out, and people have had enough.”

Veach said she understand the importance of preserving the environment. She works at a nature center and “my kids call me a tree-hugger,” she said.

When asked how to address the climate crisis, Veach demurred. “I don’t serve on those committees,” she said, referring to legislative panels that oversee environmental policy. “But I’m sure there’s got to be another way to address it other than tax, tax, tax.”

Tom Pugliese, a retiree from Rocky Hill, said his budget cannot absorb even a modest increase in fuel costs. As for addressing the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels, he proposes tidal energy, which uses the power of ocean tides to generate electricity. (The technology is not yet widely used.)

“Chile does it, and we’re on the ocean just like they are,” Pugliese said. “We need to get more creative and stop attacking the taxpayers.”

Chad Thompson, a technology consultant from West Hartford who attended the rally, said he is confident the market — not the government — will drive solutions to the climate crisis, which in his view, is not much of a crisis at all.

“Global warming, it’s an issue, but we have other issues,” Thompson said. “We have the border that’s out of control. … We can’t feed our own people. So how can we talk about global warming if we can’t even feed our own people?”

©2021 Hartford Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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