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Democratic legislators proclaim their cowardice on tolls

How could Connecticut’s Democratic state legislators, the majority in the General Assembly, most humiliate themselves? Hold their caucuses in public with journalists invited? Publish transcripts of their conversations with special interests? Maybe a pie-throwing contest?

Those might be good but the Democratic legislative leaders, Senate President Martin Looney and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, have contrived what might be the biggest humiliation of all time. According to the Connecticut Mirror, the Democratic leaders fear that they can assemble majority votes for imposing highway tolls (for starters, just on trucks) only if the House of Representatives and the Senate vote simultaneously on the legislation.

That is, while the Democratic leaders claim that their caucuses have, barely, the votes for tolls, the caucuses distrust each other and some wavering legislators won’t vote for tolls unless they are sure of getting political cover from a favorable vote in both houses.

Ordinarily a vote cast for a bill that fails is of little consequence for a legislator in the next election. But the grassroots opposition to tolls, engendered by the remarkable No Tolls CT organization, promises to keep the issue going throughout this year’s legislative campaigns.

As a result some Democratic legislators can’t imagine a fate more horrible than voting for tolls only for the bill to fail in the other house, leaving them with no new revenue to show for a vote that may cause them much trouble for re-election.

But the scheme contemplated by the Democratic leaders figures that if both houses can vote on tolls at the same moment, the votes can be tallied while the roll calls are left open for a few minutes to allow vote switches in case one caucus turns out to have misled the other.

It’s so silly. For any legislator’s vote switch prompted by an unexpected result in the other house is bound to be noticed by journalists and toll opponents and thus to identify the legislator as a waffler going into his re-election campaign.

Further, even if the scheme for simultaneous votes is not carried out, it already has tarred Democratic legislators as cowardly and unprincipled. If they really thought that tolls are good policy, their votes would not depend on what happens in the other house and whether the other house provides them with political cover. The scheme proclaims that some Democratic legislators will support tolls only if they are assured by enough of their colleagues that they all can get away with it.

Of course such concerns arise with many controversial issues in legislatures, but ordinarily they are addressed confidentially. Parliamentary procedure may be able to reduce controversy for particular legislators, and votes and amendments may be structured to insulate legislators representing marginal districts, letting them vote against the majority of their caucus without entirely thwarting the caucus’ objectives. Surely Senate President Looney and House Speaker Aresimowicz have already attempted this.

But such arrangements are best made without advertising the cowardice and lack of principle behind them.

The last election’s enlargement of the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly seems to have dulled their political skills. Tolls are a tough issue politically, but the more Democrats fear letting their constituents know what they really think, the less their constituents should trust them.


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