Chris Powell: Tolls another way to avoid tough decisions


According to the Democratic legislators who form the majority on the  Connecticut General Assembly's Transportation Committee,  the Nutmeg State needs to restore tolls on its Interstate Highways. The Democrats argue that state government's transportation fund is inadequate for the improvements needed, that all nearby states have imposed tolls, and that out-of-staters and truckers travel through Connecticut for free. Indeed, the Democrats predict that half the revenue from tolls would be paid by out-of-staters and truckers.

Of course, that means that the other half would come from state residents. But even as the Democrats tout the technology that would let tolls be collected by electronic means without slowing and endangering traffic as toll booths used to do, they do not propose programming such a new system to exempt Connecticut's residents from the tolls. That is, the Democrats are after Connecticut's money as much as the money from out of state and are using out-of-staters and truckers as political cover for another tax increase.

Ironically, even as the Transportation Committee was voting along party lines for tolls, Governor Malloy was announcing that a study had concluded that tourism is crucial to Connecticut because it contributes nearly $15 billion to the state's economy every year. No one explained how charging tolls helps tourism.

As a tax increase on state residents, tolls will serve mainly to relieve pressure on state government to economize generally. Thus tolls will help preserve all sorts of excesses, like the six minor paid holidays enjoyed by state and municipal employees (such as Columbus Day) that are not enjoyed by many  people in the private sector, the thousands of state and municipal government salaries that exceed the governor's own, the binding arbitration of government employee union contracts, and welfare benefits for childbearing outside marriage.

Avoiding such structural changes is the dearest hope of many legislators.

At least the legislature's Education Committee has noticed one of those excesses: the law that forbids most municipal school systems from reducing their spending as student enrollment declines. Connecticut's school enrollment has been declining for years even as school spending has kept rising, for the law's objective has been to ensure that all savings from declining enrollment are paid as increases in compensation for members of teacher unions rather than returned to taxpayers.

But now that the governor proposes to slash state financial aid to most school systems and transfer the money to the worst-performing city school systems (as if any amount of money will ever improve education much for parentless children), legislators see a chance to serve the unions even while having to take something away from them.

That is, with the governor playing the bad cop with school aid, threatening mass layoffs and program eliminations in most towns, the legislature can play good cop by restoring some aid while letting towns keep the savings from declining enrollment. Teachers might lose only their raises instead of their jobs.

Neither the governor nor the Education Committee has yet addressed the latest Superior Court finding that state government's formula for school aid is unconstitutional because it is "irrational."

But that case will be on appeal to the state Supreme Court for a while, and maybe, having prompted, with its decision in Horton v. Meskill in 1977, 40 years of legislative tinkering with school-aid formulas only to accomplish nothing, the court at last will recognize that nothing about school aid formulas is rational because the only thing that matters much to a child's education is his home life.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.