New England governors keep signaling second thoughts about the climate effort being led by Charlie Baker

The Baker administration says they "are in full-court press mode."

BOSTON MA - 11/04/2019: Rte 93 northbound by Dorchester an aerial view of morning traffic coming into the city during rush hour (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: SPOTLIGHT TOPIC
An aerial view of traffic on Route 93 in Dorchester during rush hour. –David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

Et tu, Maine?

Gov. Janet Mills is the latest New England governor to signal reservations about the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the regional effort led by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In a statement reported Monday night by The Boston Globe, the Maine Democrat’s office said that “the challenges of climate and transportation issues for rural states like Maine are unique, and the state will be appropriately cautious when considering these issues.” The Portland Press Herald reported last month that Mills, who was first elected in 2018, has been under pressure from conservative groups who say the TCI would amount to a regressive tax on those who rely on driving in the large, sparsely populated state.

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Mills has pledged that Maine will be carbon neutral by 2045. But from the governor’s speech before the United Nations in September to her year-end message last month, the TCI has not been mentioned as part of the state’s climate action plans.

A dozen Northeastern states  — including all six in New England — had originally signed on to the TCI, which aims to reduce the region’s vehicle emissions by 20 percent to 25 percent over 10 years through requiring local fossil fuel distributors to buy permits for the amount of climate change-inducing pollution they produce.

The revenue from the permits — estimated up to $7 billion — would be invested back into more sustainable transportation options. However, supporters say that if distributors decide to pass the costs of the permits onto consumers, gas prices could increase by 5 to 17 cents a gallon.

And that has resulted in some hesitancy among some of the states in the agreement.

After details of the plan were released last month, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu abruptly announced that he was withdrawing his state from the TCI’s planning process, comparing the potential effects of the “financial boondoggle” to a gas tax increase.

“Under this scheme, NH drivers would be forced to pay a significant new gas tax with little environmental benefit to NH,” the Republican governor wrote. “Rural communities would be left at a severe disadvantage if we participated in the TCI, as drivers will bear the brunt of the artificially higher gas prices.”

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Baker, a fellow Republican, also opposes increasing his state’s gas tax. However, he and his administration have argued that the TCI is better in several respects, since it would impose fees at the wholesale level — rather than directly taxing consumers at the pump — and let companies decide how much to increase prices. Supporters also note that the maximum estimated increase would be within the historic variations in the cost of gas, as well as average price differences between states. And the revenue, they say, will go toward initiatives that make it easier for individuals to increase their use of public transit, electric vehicles, cycling, or walking — with a particular focus on lower-income communities.

Still, other New England governors are blinking at the agreement.

In his State of the State address last week, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said that it would be “incentives, not penalties, which will help us transition more quickly” toward more sustainable transit options (the state recently launched a rebate program offering up to $5,000 for electric car-buyers and has been investing in electric buses).

Scott’s speech was reportedly interrupted by protesters demanding more aggressive action on climate change. And while the Republican governor didn’t mention TCI by name, he made his concerns clear.

“I hear from Vermonters across the state, like those traveling long distances for work out of necessity, not choice, and others, like our seniors living on fixed incomes, who struggle to fill their gas tanks and heat their homes,” Scott said. “I simply cannot support proposals that will make things more expensive for them.”

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During a radio appearance earlier last week, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he is currently “solely” focusing on his plan to create a dozen truck-only tolls to raise revenue for transportation infrastructure.

“Look, one step at a time,” the Democratic governor told WNPR, adding that “raising that gas tax, frankly, is what other states — mainly Republican states — have done to pay for transportation. I think it’s 100% paid for by Connecticut residents and probably not the way the to go.”

According to the Globe, Lamont’s office says he is still weighing the TCI.

If the Baker administration had one firm ally, it’s Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who affirmed her support the same week that the details about its potential effects on gas prices were announced.

“We can’t save this planet if we don’t deal with the carbon emissions from cars and trucks on the road,” Raimondo told WPRI in a Dec. 18 interview. “Will there be a tax associated with the transportation climate initiative? Almost certainly.”

But again, supporters say that the costs will ultimately be worth it. None of the Mid-Atlantic states in the pact have suggested they might withdraw (several, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, reiterated their support). And after Sununu officially announced that New Hampshire would not be part of the TCI, Baker’s office pointed to “robust participation” from the other states and its “broad coalition of support from members of both the business and environmental communities.”

“The Commonwealth looks forward to working with other regional leaders to identify practical, market-based solutions to reduce transportation emissions while growing the regional economy and significantly improving public health,” Anisha Chakrabarti, a spokeswoman for the governor, said at the time.

According to the State House News Service, Massachusetts Energy and Environment Secretary Kathleen Theoharides told state lawmakers Tuesday that the administration remains remains “fully committed to getting TCI done.”

“I am not looking at plan Bs right now,” Theoharides said, adding that, “we are in full-court press mode in making sure option A gets done.”

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