Earlier this year Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a 10 percent increase on rail and bus fares by October to help the state cope with the budget crisis.
That proposal was lambasted by commuter advocates and the legislature’s Democratic majority who pledged to avoid it in whatever two-year budget they passed.
But during last minute budget wrangling at the end of August Democrats shifted around funds (they claim at Rell’s request) which all but ensured a fare increase if the money was not somehow restored during this week’s special session.
The special session is being held to essentially iron out and vote on the language that actually implements the budget passed in the early morning hours of Sept. 1.
“It was recognized that without increasing fares … there would be a revenue shortfall,” Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, told me tonight. “It was agreed we would take care of that shortfall when we did the implementer process … I don’t think it was clear to many what the final solution was going to be.”
The Democrats’ decided to hike dozens of Department of Motor Vehicles fees to gain about $50 million over two years. Since Rell in an earlier budget proposal had also recommended higher DMV fees, they figured she would still be okay with the idea.
So, for example, the cost of a six year, non-commercial driver’s license is changing from $66 to $78.
But in a letter issued today to legislative leaders, Rell wrote “I will not sign a bill that does contain such increases. Although I have been willing to support fee increases in the past, and indeed I have even proposed some fee increases, I have never been willing to support fee increases and tax increases as contained in the budget.”
Democrats went ahead and passed the fees around 10:35 p.m. tonight. The Senate is likely to take up and pass the fees tomorrow.
Rep. Christopher Perone, D-Norwalk, a Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee vice-chairman, said from what he understood some of the DMV fees had not been increased in years and were due for a change. Perone accused Rell of backtracking on her initial support for the increases.
“She proposed them and now she doesn’t like it,” Perone said.
Scribner told me he is not a fan of forcing bus and train riders to pay higher fares. But, he argued, is it fair to shift the costs to DMV patrons?
“Although I’m a strong proponent of encouraging mass transit use people all over the state are going to be subjected to these fee increases and may have no access to rail services,” Scribner said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, during the debate over the DMV fees said Democrats could have instead tried to make additional cuts in the budget to avoid train/bus fare hikes rather than “raising every motor vehicle fee that existed to mankind.”
UPDATE: It’s just after 4 p.m. on Thursday and the DMV fee hikes just passed the Senate mostly along party lines.
Sens. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, a vice-chairman of the Transportation Committee and Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, voted for it. Lower Fairfield County’s three Republican Senators – Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich and Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield – voted “no.”
Frantz in an interview with The Advocate earlier this month said he wanted to work to avoid the train/bus fare hikes.
“Given the state of the economic cycle and the fact that transportation is already expensive, I would go easy on any fare increases or postpone them entirely,” Frantz said at the time.
But during today’s debate in the Senate he took issue with raising the costs of doing business with the DMV to do it. Noting the fee hikes impact dozens of licenses, including operating a hearse, Frantz noted: “The cost of dying has just gone up.”
In a brief interview afterward, Norwalk’s Robert Genuario, the Governor’s budget chief, said Rell does not want to see train and bus riders pay more but she also did not want to see the Democrats raise DMV fees.
“Balance the budget with cuts. Balance the budget with reductions,” Genuario said.
A few minutes later I discussed the same topic with Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
I asked her why it is fairer to soak DMV customers, some of whom do not regularly use public transportation, rather than raise the costs for those who use it.
Daily said maybe the higher DMV fees will provide an incentive for some to commute on trains and buses. But she also added the Democrats earlier this year proposed budgets that would have instead imposed income tax increases on higher earners but Rell (and, I might add, some Democrats from lower Fairfield County) balked.
“I don’t like financing our budget that way but the budget compromise left us no choice,” Daily said.