Democrats control state government in Connecticut but they could not get major climate change legislation over the finish line

·6 min read

Climate activist Sena Wazer started the year with a strong sense of optimism that a multistate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest millions of dollars a year in cleaner transportation would win approval from Connecticut lawmakers.

But when the legislature adjourned this week without passage of the measure, she was left profoundly disappointed.

“There is a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate and a majority in the House and still, we are unable to pass climate legislation, which is supposed to be an issue that Democrats care about,” said Wazer, a 17-year-old rising senior at UConn who is majoring in environmental studies and is co-director of the state chapter of Sunrise, a youth-led environmental group.

“That’s something that disillusions a lot of people, including myself,” Wazer said. “It’s hard to keep going, to keep pushing climate legislation when Democratic leaders who are supposedly on your side do something very different when it comes to actually acting.’'

The Transportation Climate Initiative — or TCI for short — is a regional cap-and-trade plan to raise money to combat climate change by seeking wholesale reductions in motor vehicle pollution, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. It requires large gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase allowances for the pollution caused by combustion of the fuels they sell in Connecticut.

Late last year, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, signed on to the plan, which seeks to ensure that Connecticut will reduce carbon emissions by at least 26% 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 legislature needs to sign off on the state’s participation and that’s where things got complicated. Lawmakers held a public hearing on the proposal earlier this year but it failed to come up for a vote in either chamber before end of the legislative session at midnight on Wednesday.

“Some issues can wait a year, but the climate certainly can’t,” said Sen. Will Haskell, a Democrat from Westport. “There’s nothing more fundamental than the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s time to come together and remember that we are a Democratic state with a Democratic governor and strong Democratic majorities in both chambers and all of us run for reelection as champions of the environment, believers in science and fighters against climate change.”

Haskell and other lawmakers are hoping the proposal can be raised when the legislature reconvenes in a special session to consider bills legalizing marijuana and implementing the state budget. That could happen as early as next week.

“The time is now‚” said Sen. Christine Cohen, a Democrat from Guilford and co-chair of the legislature’s environment committee. “We truly have an existential crisis on our hands and if we’re going to do anything this is arguably the most important thing we can do.”

TCI’s failure can be blamed on a number of factors, from procedural — the program was stripped from the state budget but time ran out before lawmakers could run it as a standalone bill — to political: Republicans branded it as a new tax, an assessment shared by some Democrats.

The decision to keep the Capitol closed to the public throughout the legislative session also played a role, said Charles Rothenberger, a climate and energy attorney with Save the Sound, an environmental advocacy group.

The bill became a bargaining chip during the session, something Rothenberger said he finds deeply troubling.

“I’m not in the room when the budget negotiations are happening but for whatever reason, the leadership that was in that room seemed to think that Connecticut’s most important piece of climate legislation could be used as a political football,” he said. “We know how horse trading works, we know how deals get made but climate legislation is not an appropriate or suitable vehicle for that.”

Republicans in the legislature painted the proposal as a gas tax that would hit low-income motorists the hardest. “It’s not about good environmental policy. It’s about tax revenue,” Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly said in March. “It is nothing but a money grab.”

Grassroots critics who had been active in the anti-tolls movement quickly turned their ire to TCI. Patrick Sasser, a leader of the group No Tolls CT, decried the proposal as “Ned’s TCI gas tax scam” and called on people to contact their legislators to register their criticism.

Rothenberger noted that concern about the environment has traditionally been an issue that crosses party lines. “In other states and across the region, it’s not partisan,’' he said. “Charlie Baker is a Republican.”

But some liberal Democrats also expressed reservations, describing the plan as “regressive” and saying low-income motorists would bear a greater proportion of the cost.

The program is expected to generate up to $89 million in annual revenue for Connecticut in 2023, which would increase to as much as $117 million by 2032. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection could not say how much of that cost will be passed on to consumers, but estimated it could increase gas prices by as much as 10 cents per gallon once the plan is fully implemented.

The regional nature of the compact means Connecticut’s inability to get the bill passed could have implications beyond the state’s borders. Massachusetts has already warned that its participation hinges on multiple states joining the compact. Other states, including Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and New York, have expressed support for TCI in concept, but have yet to formally commit to it.

Lamont said he is hopefully the agreement can be salvaged. “I talked to Rhode Island. I talked to Massachusetts. We had some Southern states really ready to go. They were really surprised that a state like Connecticut, that everybody thought was such a leader on the environment, stepped back when it came to the transportation climate initiative,” the governor told reporters last week. “Putting a small fee on pollution that would be paid for by petroleum wholesalers seemed like something that we ought to be able to get done.”

He added, “I think we lost a big opportunity there. But the door is not shut.”

Climate activists such as Wazer say they are trying not to become skeptical about the prospect for change. “It is hard as a young person coming into this with so much hope and enthusiasm,” she said.

“To have a real belief that we can do this and that the American political system will work things out and then to see it kind of fail this spectacularly was quite disappointing,” Wazer said, “but I still retain some optimism.”

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com