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December 6, 2023

CT’s bumpy road to ‘clean cars’: GOP opposed, urban Dems wary

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Gov. Ned Lamont and Rep. Geraldo Reyes chatting in 2022. At right is House Speaker Matt Ritter.

Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury, is an environmental justice advocate conflicted over whether Connecticut should get back on the road towards phasing out new-car sales of most gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035.

His 75th House District is bisected by I-84, and some of his constituents live in a desperately poor census tract hard by the busy highway, breathing air perfumed by the exhaust of slow-moving trucks and cars at rush hour.

“My environmental instincts tell me this is a no-brainer,” Reyes said.

But Reyes, as much as anyone in the General Assembly, embodies the mixed feelings generated by last week’s rejection of regulations that would have implemented the 2035 mandate.

He wants cleaner air, but he wonders how his financially struggling constituents would fare in a new-car market dominated by electric vehicles. Could they afford them? Where would they charge them? Would the state be ready?

Those questions and others were asked Monday night in a closed caucus of the House Democratic majority, lawmakers said Tuesday. No commitments were sought, and another caucus is planned. 

“We haven’t figured out exactly what direction we’re going to take on this yet,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “This was really kind of a temperature-check caucus and to get initial concerns out on the table.”

Last week, some leaders acknowledged during an extraordinary press conference that advocates of the regulations had badly misread the depth of opposition, or at least the doubts. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, admonished those who demeaned or dismissed the opposition.

“Our party sometimes has a wag-our-finger approach to individuals who may not always see it the same way,” Ritter said then. “These are real concerns that can’t be just shooed away, they can’t be wished away. They have to be worked on.”

A week later, Ritters and others still are assessing the task ahead. One of the more difficult challenges in politics, whether in a campaign for office or passage of legislation, is to regain control of a narrative after it’s been lost to opponents.

“I think there is a real recognition that maybe we missed the mark in ensuring that people feel comfortable with this,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Transportation Committee.

“A few things pop out at me. The first one is Connecticut has to be be very clear what this is,” Ritter said. “The greatest misconception that is out there is that in 2035 you cannot buy a gas-powered vehicle. That’s not accurate.”

The regulations that failed would have allowed plug-in hybrids, which are powered by both electric motors and gasoline engines, to be part of the new-car mix still allowed in 2035. Gas-powered cars also still could be sold in the used-car market.

Environmental advocates say they erred by focusing on the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee and not responding more broadly to the Republicans who effectively campaigned to the public, primarily over issues of affordability of electric vehicles, the capacity of the electric grid and the availability of chargers.

With the bipartisan passage of a law signed by a Republican governor in 2004, Connecticut opted to follow the California emission standards, which are more stringent than those imposed by federal law. The state law authorized Connecticut to keep pace with California standards by the promulgation of regulations.

But Republicans said the revised California standards, which created a timetable for phasing out new-car sales of most gas-powered vehicles by 2035, was a significant policy change that should be weighed by the full General Assembly.

Due to Connecticut’s unusual process for implementing regulations — a review by a bipartisan legislative committee with seven Democrats and seven Republicans — the GOP minority could kill the new standards if only one Democrat joined them. When it became apparent there were two likely defections, the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont conceded defeat and withdrew the regulations.

Ritter and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, reacted to the setback by promising to seek legislation that would keep Connecticut committed to the clean-air standards and 2035 timetable that has been endorsed by Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, among other states.

“They need to stand up and make this happen,” said Lori Brown, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. “We’re taking them at their word.”

One possibility floated by Ritter is legislation affirming Connecticut’s commitment to the California timetable, while also requiring a second vote in perhaps five years —providing an opportunity to assess if the state had made sufficient progress toward building a charging network.

Sen. Stephen Harding of Brookfield, the ranking Republican senator on the Environment Committee, said he favors the state offering incentives to consumers and businesses that would help increase the market for zero-emission vehicles.

“Those are all things I’m absolutely 100% open to and probably would get around to supporting,” Harding said. “My view is a mandate is not workable at this particular time.”

Harding said the possibility of an exit from the California standards in five years if Connecticut is not ready was unlikely to attract Republican support. The state should first demonstrate progress towards the necessary infrastructure, then seek a commitment to a phase-out deadline, he said.

“There is some legitimate concern out there. I also think there is some misinformation and disinformation,” Cohen said.

Republicans repeatedly have said the Lamont administration has no plan for ensuring the state would be ready for an auto market dominated by electric vehicles. 

Actually, the administration published a “policy framework” in 2020 for electric vehicle adoption and a strategic plan in 2022 for expanding public electric charging stations. Last year, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority launched a nine-year plan to build a system of chargers.

But Ritter, Cohen and others acknowledge they need to address the concerns raised by urban lawmakers, who say their constituents’ needs typically have been overlooked when environmental policies are crafted. The majority of lawmakers at the press conference last week were white and suburban.

“There is this divide with the perspective of people who represent more affluent areas and those that represent people in large apartment buildings,” Ritter said.

It’s easier to envision charging an EV when you own a two-car garage, he said.

Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, the chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said, “The urban centers have to be included in these conversations. From my perspective, we’ve been excluded.”

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the tension between minority urban communities and environmentalists is not new.

“The challenge here is a challenge that has existed for a long time,” Winfield said. “I think that it’s important to remember that population that may even be served by a policy have to feel they are part of making this policy.”

In Waterbury, Reyes said his constituents are not engaged on the car standards.

“This is not their biggest priority,” said Reyes, the immediate past president of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “My constituents don’t have an appetite for this at all.”

In the census tract in his district that is closest to the highway, the median household income is $25,000, less than one-third the statewide median. Reyes says the jobless rate there is 19%, more than five times the state rate of 3.5%.

While his caucus leaders have raised the possibility of addressing the emissions issue in a special session before the regular session opens in 2024, Reyes said that would be a mistake.

“There is a lot on the table here,” he said. 

For most Black and Latino lawmakers, he said, a quick vote would mean a no vote.

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