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COMMENTARY: Talking Transportation: Last-minute legislation taxes commuters — again

Usually, I have a lot of respect for our elected officials in Hartford. But what happened in the final hours of the legislative session in recent weeks is just shocking. You probably didn’t hear about it because there are no reporters left covering the state house for what passes for newspapers and TV news in our state, but that’s another story.

Lawmakers know they aren’t being watched and are, therefore, not accountable. (I do commend veteran reporter Ken Dixon’s blog for the gory details of what they pulled off.)

Working late into the night, in their final hours in session, our elected officials wheeled and dealed on dozens of bills, painstakingly crafted and considered in recent months. By 3 a.m. they were voting on bundles of bills they had not read, some introduced at the last minute, acting like bleary-eyed college students pulling an all-nighter. Is this the government we deserve?

Amidst this annual frenzy, the Malloy administration was also trying to plug a $200 million gap in the current budget. Unwilling to raise taxes any further, they turned to rail commuters and motorists and picked our pockets instead. But the session had started on a better note.

Thanks to State Rep Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield), a previously announced 4% rail fare hike to take effect Jan. 1, 2013, had gone away during the writing of the new budget. But at the 11th hour, Malloy’s budget team put it back — not to raise money to fix our trains, but to raise money to close the deficit. This was less a fare increase than a tax on commuters. And it was Gov. Malloy’s idea, rubber stamped by the Democratic majority.

But worse yet, lawmakers stole $70 million from the Special Transportation Fund (STF), also to plug that deficit hole. That takes money raised by gasoline taxes, which was supposed to be used to fix highways and bridges, and uses it to pay for everything but those efforts.

As I have written before, the Special Transportation Fund is less a “lock box” than a slush-fund, dipped into regularly by Democrats and Republicans looking for money but reticent to raise taxes.

When he was running for office, candidate Dan Malloy decried such moves. He said he would call for a constitutional amendment to safeguard the fund from such pilfering.

Not only did he not introduce such an amendment, he did the same as past governors, raiding the special transportation fund and making commuters pay for his budgeting mistakes. In my book, that makes him a hypocrite.

Months earlier, we discovered that this past January’s 4% fare increase wasn’t going to be spent on the trains, but was going into the STF. When State Rep Gail Lavielle (R–Wilton) tried, along with 20-plus lawmakers, to introduce a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on mass transit, she couldn’t even get it out of committee.

Commuters: The fix is in. Your fares (the highest of any commuter railroad in the U.S.) are going higher. But the money won’t be spent on improving rail service. Those millions will just go into the transportation slush-fund. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Of course, this is an election year. So you might ask those running for state representative and state senator who want to represent you, why they allow rail fares to be used as yet another tax on commuters.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA. CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or trainweb.org/ct. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.

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