Tolling in Connecticut is what the advertising men would call a tough sell, and it helps in circumstances such as these to bring in some political spin doctors to assist in the delivery.
Many people in Connecticut, almost certainly a majority, do not want tolls. On May 9, No Tolls Connecticut delivered to the governor’s office a “No Tolls” petition signed by 100,000 people.
Candidate for governor Ned Lamont said during his campaign he would favor tolls only if people outside the state, truck drivers mostly, would be depositing their mites in Connecticut’s revenue collection basket. He said this several times while the TV cameras were rolling.
Later Lamont changed his mind, always the prerogative of pretty women and ambitious politicians. But Lamont’s reversal – which came shortly after he had won his gubernatorial campaign – could not be justified as a “misspeak.” He could have used the services of a good narrative builder right there, but Roy Occhiogrosso, former Gov. Dan Malloy’s flack catcher and narrative builder, perhaps was busy hauling in the dollars from his other clients.
According to Occhiogrosso’s Global Strategy Group bio, “Roy returned to GSG – where he was a partner from 2003 to 2010 – in 2013, after serving for two years as senior adviser and chief strategist to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy. Roy believes that, at some level, everything is about communications. And that if you communicate proactively and properly – using traditional and new media, and social media, internally and externally – you can win your fights and avoid problems.”
Some elements of Occhiogrosso’s strategy on tolls have been activated by Lamont, and no doubt Occhiogrosso will be able to spin some profit from the toll contretemps. He is not alone in supposing that a well-constructed narrative – the bulk of American politics these days is narration, story building – can overcome not only populist opposition but reality itself.
Joining the tolls-are-good-for-you effort are, according to Jon Lender’s piece in The Hartford Courant, a number of Global Strategy Group strategists. The group has produced a “23-page document, entitled ‘Connecticut Campaign for Transportation, 2019 Legislative session,’” that fell into Lender’s hands, and he publicized the private communique; it’s what good investigative reporters do.
Part of the difficulty with tolling is that nearly everyone in Connecticut understands a toll to be a consumer tax. And, to put it in blunt non-narrative, populist terms, people in the state have had it up to their ears with taxes.
First there was the income tax -- necessary, people were told by political narrators, to bring backward Connecticut into the 21st Century. Prior to the income tax, the state relied on consumption taxes, which were, said the political narrators, regressive.
Then Malloy – and Occhiogrosso – came ambling down the road and increased both income taxes and consumption taxes to pay off debts incurred by General Assembly politicians, mostly Democrats, who had invested not a penny into the state employees’ seriously under-financed pension fund for about 30 years after the fund had been created. Numerous “lockbox” funds then were raided by the same cowardly politicians, the appropriated loot dumped into the General Fund. Naturally, Malloy and company were forced to raise taxes to pay off mounting debt. Malloy was followed by Lamont, a protégé of former Gov. Lowell Weicker, who called Weicker to ask himj how he had managed to get an income tax through a then moderate- Democrat opposition in the General Assembly.
The 24-page secret communique suggests remedies to overcome mounting and entirely predictable opposition to tolls, and there is reason to believe that Lamont already has adopted some suggestions: “To overcome resistance, a strategy would be developed ‘to drive legislative support for a tolling concept that will maximize revenue while holding CT citizens as harmless as possible (example: resident discount)… Convincing the legislature to vote for a comprehensive tolling bill — one that includes trucks and cars, albeit with a substantial discount for CT drivers, won’t be easy.
‘‘Opponents have already framed this in simple terms: ‘it’s another huge tax increase.’ In order to win this fight we’re going to have to first reframe the debate — so that’s about ‘jobs and economic development,’ and not just another tax increase… ‘ Government Relations Tactics’ would include: showing legislators ‘how money earned via tolls can significantly improve their specific districts — driving the correlation between tolls and local improvements to infrastructure; highlighting the ‘vs.’ factor by using ‘polling data to share statewide how CT residents feel when you compare tolls to an increase in gas taxes, property taxes, car taxes, etc.’ and providing ‘legislative leadership the necessary political data to ‘whip’ their caucuses’ into support for tolling.”
Getting an unpopular measure passed through the legislature requires an almost religious faith in the power of deconstructing and reconstructing emotion-based “narratives.” The palpable, ruinous consequences of further tax increases can always be buried in a coffin of fanciful – and costly – propaganda.
Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based columnist.