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2018 Looks To Be Another Bruising Year For Connecticut Politics

Jessica Hill
Conn. Governor Dannel Malloy; State Senate Republican President Len Fasano with Conn. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides; and Conn. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz.

Connecticut lawmakers return to the State Capitol in Hartford for the 2018 legislative session on Wednesday. Highway tolls and fixing the state’s budget deficit are expected to be at the top of their agenda.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma has been following developments leading to the upcoming session and recently sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss what he’s learned. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Ebong, tolls were removed from Connecticut’s highways more than 30 years ago after a series of ghastly accidents resulting in multiple fatalities. Why do state lawmakers want to bring them back now?

Tom, the simple reason is that Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund is running out of money. That has prompted Governor Malloy, who previously had not been a fan of tolls, to now be an enthusiastic supporter. Malloy is going to make his budget speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, and he says it’ll include a plan for electronic tolls on state highways by 2023. It will also include a proposal for a 7 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase and a $3 fee on every new tire purchase. He says $1.5 billion in new revenue a year needs to be raised to keep the transportation fund solvent.

“Without new revenue like those I’m putting forward today, the problem would only get worse. Cancelled projects and maintenance would drive our roads into further state of disrepair threatening our economic future,” said Malloy.

Threatening our economic future. So is there bipartisan support for Malloy’s plan?

Far from it, Tom. Here’s State Senate Republican President Len Fasano, who controls 50 percent of the seats in the Senate. “I’m not exactly sure what they are asking us to do. You know, there a bunch of hearings going on regarding the raising of rail fares and bus fares. Now you are approving a bill that’s going to allow tolls without any legislative input whether it works or not? It’s just lunacy. You know what it is, it’s just desperateness that should not exist in this building. We should know what we are doing in this building when we vote. And we need to know facts. Whether tolls work or not, I’m willing to be convinced that it works. But we need to know what we are doing when we do it. That’s all.”

So what does that mean? Fasano wants a study on tolls before lawmakers take action on this?

That’s right, Tom. And you know when lawmakers ask for studies, it’s usually because they don’t want to take any action.

Okay, what about the state deficit…Where do we stand on that? Because just last week, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo released a report projecting a $244 million state deficit for this fiscal year ending on June 30th?

Yes, he did. But lawmakers are taking a “wait and see” attitude because the state saw a windfall of revenue at the end of last year. State Senate Democratic President Martin Looney says they’ll probably wait until income tax receipts are in, in April, before taking any deficit mitigation action.

Looney said, “At this point we don’t know what the final returns in April will be. And how much of what we received in late December is a prepayment of what might have otherwise been received in April. So we don’t know for sure whether the returns in April will be positive or not and what our situation would be at that time.”

Okay. Ebong something else happened last week, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who’s a Derby Republican, told her caucus she won’t be joining the crowded field of candidates running for governor. What does that mean for the upcoming legislative session?

It’s going to make for a contentious session. Klarides has her ambition set on being the next speaker of the Connecticut House. She believes Republicans will finally win the majority of seats in the House this fall. 

Klarides said, “I do believe that having a majority in the House and Senate is the most important thing we can do as Republicans and showing this state what we can do in the majority evidenced by what we’ve done in the past few years with the numbers as close as they are. Imagine what we can happen if we are in the majority.”

I’m sure the Democrats are pushing back on that?

You bet they are. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat from Berlin, said, “I’d say fat chance. She’ll be in her current office. We are going to work as hard as we can to increase our majority. And I truly believe that the State of Connecticut and the voters are with us.”

So it looks like we are going to have a contentious legislative session this year.

It sure does.

Thank you, Ebong.

Thank you, Tom.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.