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Only blocking new revenue can fix state government

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Heavy attendance at last week’s General Assembly hearing on the Lamont administration’s plan to impose highway tolls on trucks suggested that most people realize that truck tolls are the first stage of a plan to impose tolls on all vehicles once the next election is out of the way.

A powerful hint of the Democratic legislative majority’s resentment of accountability is the draft legislation’s provision giving a committee within the state Transportation Department the power to increase toll rates without another vote by the legislature.

Postponing a vote on tolls for a couple of weeks, Democratic legislative leaders indicated that they might not yet have secured the necessary support among Democrats in the state Senate.

So far, so good then. But just as truck tolls are only the first step toward more taxes, defeating tolls is only a first step toward reforming state government. For state government  never will examine its corruption, incompetence, and policy failures until the prospect of new revenue is foreclosed.

Legislators in the Republican minority should be taking the lead on this. They recently made a little noise about the self-dealing, extravagance, and unaccountability of the Connecticut Port Authority, corruption persistently exposed by the New London Day’s David Collins while largely overlooked by most other state news organizations. But the Republicans are woefully short of specifics showing how transportation maintenance and improvements might be funded by economizing elsewhere in state government.

Of course getting specific about economizing would risk making enemies with special interests. But that is the price of saving Connecticut, and what have the Republicans accomplished by not getting specific? They have lost the last three elections for governor, elections they should have won, and haven’t held the majority in the General Assembly for 34 years.

Last week Republican legislators failed to capitalize on a great gift of investigative journalism provided by the Connecticut Mirror’s Keith Phaneuf, who refuted the ridiculous claim by the governor’s office that state transportation tax revenue has not been diverted to the general fund and that the revenue diversions have been the other way around, with general fund money going to transportation purposes.

The Mirror detailed how, for 15 years under administrations of both parties, more than a billion dollars in fuel tax revenue collected nominally for transportation purposes was intercepted by the general fund and spent elsewhere. Maybe the Republicans were silent on this last week because they felt guilty about their party’s complicity.

Throughout state and municipal government, deferring maintenance long has been policy everywhere, not just in transportation. Elected officials think they can gain favor in the next election by spending maintenance money on goodies for special interests — new programs, raises, playgrounds, and such — figuring that the next bridge collapse, train derailment, boiler breakdown, or pipe rupture will happen on some other elected official’s watch in the future, when restoring regular service will require expensive immediate repairs.

The governor and Democratic legislators claim that tolls should be enacted because transportation needs are so urgent. Meanwhile nearly every day produces announcements from the governor about financial grants for all sorts of ordinary stuff irrelevant to transportation. If the governor and the Democrats really thought transportation was so urgent, they would divert general fund money there, not try to impose tolls. Tolls are really just to protect everything against audits.

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