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Senate passes and sends to House a CT Clean Air Act

Sen. Will Haskell and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff listening to GOP objections to the climate bill they both support.
Sen. Will Haskell and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff listening to GOP objections to the climate bill they both support.

A sweeping “Connecticut Clean Air Act” passed the Senate on a largely party line vote Tuesday night and was sent to the House, where leaders of the Democratic majority promise a vote on final passage before the legislative session ends next week.

The bill is intended to accelerate Connecticut’s embrace of electric vehicles with investments in charging infrastructure, tax rebates for e-bikes and electric motor vehicles, and tighter deadlines for electrifying transit and school bus fleets.

While the EV market has been relatively upscale, the bill attempts to broaden its appeal with provisions aimed at making battery-powered transportation more practical and affordable for renters and lower-income commuters.

Passage of Senate Bill 4would give Gov. Ned Lamont and others trying to address climate change a policy and political victory that eluded them last year withthe failure of the Transportation Climate Initiative.

“We have to act responsibly and do what we can within our power,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who called the measure “a truly important and historic bill for the General Assembly.”

Connecticut is falling behind on its goals to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and also is failing to comply with national ambient air quality standards for ozone.

“These failures have led to places like New Haven and Hartford being named among the worst cities to live in when you have asthma,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford. “And with these failures, we see a correlation in the increased incidence of respiratory related illness.”

With a mix of mandates and incentives, the bill would establish or strengthen clean-transportation programs and funding mechanisms, capitalizing on the nearly $5.4 billion in federal funding coming to Connecticut for infrastructure projects.

It would establish “a right to charge” for renters — a requirement that landlords allow tenants to install electric charging stations at the tenants’ cost, providing they meet certain standards for installation and associated insurance.

It also would set standards for “smart traffic lights” to reduce unnecessary idling at red lights, provide $500 tax rebates for the future purchase of e-bikes, and direct the commissioner of energy and environmental protection to develop a rebate program geared to small businesses and households of limited means.

“We’ve got to help individuals who run small businesses, whether we’re talking about those responsible for distributing food to grocery stores or those who are hauling trash around the state,” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport. “We’ve got to help them reach that electric future by giving them a little bit of a financial boost as so many other states have done.”

The measure passed on a 24-11 vote, with Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, joining every Democrat in support. Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, was absent, awaiting results of a COVID-19 test.

As often is the case with climate legislation, the debate illustrated the tensions in taking action that comes with current costs, yet only would yield future benefits.

“In this bill, I think we need to find a little bit more balance between the cost of these initiatives and our desire to produce cleaner air,” said Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown.

Republicans pegged their opposition to concerns over cost, the viability of the timeline for transition to electric vehicles, the ability and responsibility of Connecticut to address a global issue, and the propriety of the state being an actor in the energy and transportation markets rather than let consumer demand and market forces drive the transition to cleaner technologies.

“We are interfering with commerce, with property rights and our overall economy and the world we live in in this bill in ways that are going to have ramifications that we cannot even measure here today,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott. “And it’s all based on a childlike understanding of the climate in this world over time.”

Sampson asserted that the causes and impacts of climate change are unresolved, a position at odds with NASA, a body of peer-reviewed scientific papers and, according to recent polling, a majority of Americans.

“It’s frustrating to me, because the debate is not settled on the subject of climate change and the nature of what we do next,” Sampson said. “As far as energy and how we heat our homes, how we use transportation, [it] all does need to be discussed, but it does not need to be decided today in this chamber for the state of Connecticut.”

Under the bill, half of the state-owned motor vehicle fleet would have to go electric by Jan. 1, 2026, 75% by Jan. 1, 2028, and 100% by Jan. 1, 2030. The state would face an even tighter deadline of Jan. 1, 2024 for ceasing to lease or buy diesel-fueled transit buses.

Republicans tried to strike the latter deadline in an amendment that failed on a straight party-line vote.

“I get the fact people are trying to get there soon than later,” said Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield. But he questioned if production of electric vehicles would match the new demands that Connecticut and other state are trying to create.

The bill sets deadlines for moving school systems away from diesel-powered school buses. By 2035, all would have to be zero-emission or alternative-fuel vehicles. By 2040, every school bus would have produce no emissions.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, who also is the mayor of his community, said electric buses may be cheaper and cleaner to operate, but their purchase cost currently is two or three times a diesel-powered school bus.

“That’s a huge difference,” Champagne said.

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, consulting with staff during the debate on SB4..
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, consulting with staff during the debate on SB4..

The key sponsors of the bill are Cohen, the co-chair of the Environment Committee, and Haskell, co-chair of the Transportation Committee. The pair took turns defending the bill and answering questions posed during a debate that began after lunch and stretched past the dinner hour.

Haskell, who was elected in 2018 as the youngest member of the Senate and is leaving the legislature in January to attend law school, cast the bill in generational terms —a series of steps that will mitigate current pollution and bring Connecticut closer to an electric future.

“We’ve heard some some partisan back and forth today. I suppose that’s the nature of this business,” Haskell said. “But when we cast our vote… let’s remember that there’s no such thing as Democratic air or Republican air. There is only dirty air that makes us sick and clean air that is necessary to keep us alive.”

While smokestack emissions have fallen, transportation emissions are worsening by nearly every metric, Haskell said, contributing to summer ozone levels that exacerbate childhood asthma, most notably in the densely populated I-91 and I-95 corridor linking Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford.

“We’re moving in the wrong direction,” Haskell said. “And until we act, we let the next generation down. Until we decide to face this problem head on, we decide each day to pass down a planet that’s slightly or, frankly, substantially worse than the one that we inherited. We condemn folks my age and younger to more severe storms, more frequent floods, regular surges of ER visits and daily coughing fits. We can’t look away, not today and not tomorrow.”

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said everyone in the Senate agrees on the goal of cleaner air.

“We all want that,” he said. “I think the question, however, is how do we best get that?”

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