Summer tolls vote may be difficult for Lamont

Gov. Ned Lamont has a short window to close a tolls deal with lawmakers before summer vacations push a vote into the fall as he faces increasing calls from top Democrat leaders to find a transportation funding plan that will win Republican votes, making a deal even harder to clinch.

Don’t expect a vote on tolls until mid-July or — barring that — September, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Monday.

Legislative leaders are not expected to meet with Lamont to negotiate transportation funding legislation until after the July 4 holiday, Ritter said. Lawmakers’ planned vacations will bar a House vote on tolls in August, he added.

Lamont told reporters in Milford on Monday he’s not sure when a special session to pass tolls-enabling legislation will occur. Meanwhile, several House Democrats privately told Hearst Connecticut Media they don’t expect to cast a tolls vote until September at the earliest.

Lamont’s latest pitch for tolls, including an income tax reduction to offset the cost of tolls on Connecticut residents, is likely to need revisions before it sees the floor of the House and Senate.

Like Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, Ritter would like to craft legislation that will get some bipartisan support, he said Monday. That will be a challenge because Republicans have loudly and universally promised to oppose tolls in Connecticut.

“Our goal is to get Republicans too,” Ritter said. “I think that the business community and a lot major employers in our state have been very clear that transportation is a major issue in our state, so I don’t see how any legislative leader can say no or walk away… If you are not part of the conversation and we don’t do something very positive about transportation infrastructure in the future, the business community will be very upset and will be very harsh on those in the future.”

Looney, a New Haven Democrat, called for a “bipartisan approach” last week, adding that such a plan would probably include fewer tolls and more bonding.

“I’m looking at any compromise that works, but the numbers have to add up,” said Lamont Monday.

Ritter predicted that the working draft of tolls legislation Lamont released in late May would not win Republican votes. That plan included no more than 50 toll gantries on interstates 95, 91, 84 and the Merritt Parkway. Connecticut drivers, receiving resident and commuter discounts, would pay 4.4 cents per mile at on-peak times and 3.5 cents per mile off peak. Low-income drivers would get additional savings.

But Ritter believes some moderate Republicans could vote in favor of tolls if an income tax reduction meant an overall savings for the average Connecticut driver and taxpayer, he said.

If tolls are implemented, Lamont suggested last week dropping the income tax rate on an individual’s first $10,000 and joint filers’ first $20,000 of income from 3 to 2 percent. That change would give individuals making between $25,000 and $101,500 a savings of $90 and joint filers savings of $180.

“Maybe the reductions that have been proposed so far are not substantial enough,” Ritter said. “Some may want to go a little further. We’ll have that conversation.”

The income tax cut suggested by Lamont would mean $100 million less heading into state coffers. Ritter acknowledged some House Democrats might push back against removing that money — or more — from the General Fund to use on state spending for education, health care, pensions and other government expenses.

Lamont has called tolls a “tough vote” for Democrats and even promised to help House Democratic lawmakers fundraise, if they vote yes.

Lamont acknowledged Monday that inertia around tolls may grow worse over time, even if Democrats are not worried about their 2020 re-election chances with President Donald Trump seeking another term in 2020. He directed his comment at Democratic lawmakers.

“If you’re not willing to vote for it now when you’ve just been elected - as you point out Trump is at the top of the ticket in a couple years - you’re never going to be willing to make a tough choice,” Lamont said. “Now’s the time for you to make the choice.”

Lamont said he will hold another meeting with top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate in the next few weeks. He will also discuss his tolling plan with some rank-and-file lawmakers, he said.

“We are briefing them on the fact that the special transportation fund is going to be bankrupt in a few years unless we do something serious,” said Lamont.; Twitter: @emiliemunson