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CT Construction Digest Thursday December 5, 2019

For Democrats and labor, tolls are a family fight

The Democrats’ internal struggle over how to finance transportation infrastructure has laid bare tensions between the building trades, a Connecticut labor movement dominated by public-sector unions, and the Democratic lawmakers who see labor unity and support as important to keeping control of the General Assembly in the 2020 elections.
Dave Roche, the president of the Connecticut Building Trades, said construction unions played a role in helping Democrats regain outright control of the state Senate last year, only to grow increasingly angry as Senate Democrats refused to embrace any financing plan that included automobile tolls.
That anger spilled into public view last month after Senate Democrats emerged from a caucus at the State Capitol to effectively kill the governor’s latest transportation financing plan just days after it was released before an appreciative audience of construction workers. Roche found himself shouting complaints at an old friend, Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.
“Matt’s a really good friend of mine,” Roche said. “I was frustrated.”
“I officiated his daughter’s wedding,” Lesser said. “We go back a ways. I’ve had a long relationship with the trades. A lot of them are close friends of mine. I know they’re frustrated, because these are jobs their members are counting on.”
The tensions have eased — but not disappeared — since Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders united last week behind a trucks-only tolls plan they say would help finance at least $19 billion in transportation infrastructure improvements over the next decade, creating up to 26,000 construction jobs and returning highways and bridges to a state of good repair.
Lamont says he expects the revised CT2030 plan to be ready for consideration by the General Assembly before Christmas. Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, say scheduling and travel conflicts make a vote more likely in January.
With Republicans opposed to any plan with tolls or other new sources of revenue, success or failure now rests with a first-year Democratic governor and the Democratic majorities of the House and Senate. For reasons of politics and public policy, Democrats say they are intent on finding a resolution.
“I think it’s important that this party end this debate once and for all — and do that in January,” Ritter said.
Labor leaders say a failure by Democrats to pass an infrastructure plan would jeopardize what often is a perfunctory task: re-election endorsements of most Democratic lawmakers by the Connecticut AFL-CIO, the statewide federation of unions. Endorsements require a two-thirds vote.
“If you can’t support our issues, we have to look for people who will,” Roche said.
Opposition by the building trades, whose members are generally seen as among the more conservative in Connecticut labor circles, most likely would be enough to dissuade the federation from making many legislative endorsements in 2020, even if the trades lacked the votes, said Sal Luciano, the president of the AFL-CIO.
“I think the endorsement would be a problem for the simple reason of solidarity,” said Luciano, a former state social worker who spent most of his labor career in AFSCME, a public-sector union. “That’s usually enough to block a two-thirds vote.”
Unions represent 16% of Connecticut workers, but they have been a key element of an enduring coalition that has helped Democrats win the last three gubernatorial elections and control of the state House of Representatives for the past 32 years and the Senate for 28 of those 32 years.
“Too often people clump all of organized labor together as this monolithic thing, and it’s not,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford. “They are a big tent with different interests, and it’s important for us to remember that.”
The AFL-CIO’s legislative victories in 2019 were the passage of the $15 minimum-wage law, a paid family and medical leave program, and post-traumatic stress benefits for first responders. None of those issues were priorities for the building trades, but Luciano says they backed the broader labor agenda.
“It’s the sense of solidarity that keeps us together,” Luciano said. “They were good with 15. They were good with paid family leave. They also have a right to expect we’re good with their issues.”
After two years of sharing power with Republicans in an 18-18 Senate, Democrats hold a 22-14 majority in the upper chamber. They were beneficiaries of get-out-the-vote efforts in 2018 by the Operating Engineers and other construction unions known for their willingness to turn out members for weekend door-knocking.
“When we do endorse, the building trades punch above their weight,” Luciano said. 
He said they were especially helpful to Democrats who won what had been Republican seats, such as Norm Needleman of Essex and Mary Daugherty Abrams of Meriden.
Needleman, a businessman who won by just 85 votes in a race in which more than 50,000 votes were cast, said the building trades “were great,” but he declined to attribute his victory to any one factor. “When you win by 85 votes,” Needleman said, “you can point to 86 different things that put you over the top.”
Needleman said he has not committed his vote, but he sees trucks-only tolls as preferable to a Republican alternative that would use most of the state’s budget reserves to pay down pension debt, freeing cash for debt service on transportation financing.
Labor’s ire has been directed mostly at the Senate Democrats, whose leader, Looney, sees automobile tolls as politically dangerous. He has had other differences with labor, but few as intense as this.
“I think Marty’s relationship with labor is probably one of the best relationships labor has ever had,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “He is a longtime labor supporter. It’s in his family background. On this particular issue, he was careful in thinking about the needs and wants of his caucus and trying to maintain that relationship.”
Aresimowicz, who has been an AFSCME employee longer than he has been a member of the part-time General Assembly, said periodic disagreements with labor allies is healthy and inevitable. In 2017, both Aresimowicz and Looney angered public-sector unions by agreeing to a bipartisan budget that required legislative votes on contracts and arbitration awards.
“I think it’s actually helpful on both sides. You don’t want leaders of caucuses to be wholly owned subsidiaries,” Aresimowicz said. “Where you disagree, you disagree.”
“It’s all part of the job, I think, dealing with different interests and different priorities,” Looney said. “The bulk of labor, their priority was paid family leave, the minimum wage and, for first responders, the PTSD bill. Those were all major achievements there.”
Looney said his caucus agrees with the building trades, the business community and the Lamont administration that transportation financing is a priority that must be addressed.
“We are working on delivering that.”

CT transportation, local funding stalls until new year
By Keith M. Phaneuf and Mark Pazniokas
Gov. Ned Lamont raised hopes Tuesday in remarks to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities that long-delayed state grants, including one for winter snow removal, would be delivered by Christmas. The administration clarified Wednesday that promise came with a major caveat.
Administration officials said the funding would be released only after legislators adopt a long-term transportation financing plan, something that legislative leaders say is unlikely until a special session in January.
Both the stalled funding and the transportation program rely on dollars the state borrows annually by selling bonds on Wall Street. And Lamont has said frequently he cannot be sure how much Connecticut can borrow for municipal aid, school construction, and other priorities, until it addresses a long-overdue rebuild of its aging highways, bridges and rail lines.
“The governor has always viewed a transportation plan as being inextricably linked to bond authorizations,” said Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss.
But cities and towns have grown increasingly impatient as a significant portion of their annual aid package from the state — about $150 million based on last fiscal year’s totals — hangs in political limbo.
“I think it’s unfortunate they are playing political games with municipal aid at the Capitol,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “It makes it almost impossible to plan for the future of our communities if we don’t know when funding will be released.”
Lamont, who’s been trying to convince lawmakers since February to approve tolls to help finance a 10-year transportation infrastructure plan, appeared to settle on trucks-only tolls last week with his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate majorities.
They outlined a framework that includes tolling commercial trucks, utilizing low-interest federal loans, re-purposing state financing from other priorities into transportation, and possibly tapping excess budget reserves between 2021 and 2024 — provided the economy remains strong. A special session is possible in December, but only to consider a non-partisan issue: The settlement of litigation over Connecticut’s hospital provider tax.
Legislative leaders say passage of any bill involving tolls would be difficult in a pre-holiday special session, due to scheduling and travel conflicts. No Republican support is expected for any bill that relies on tolls.
Lamont had shared his optimism Tuesday with municipal leaders that the transportation-bonding standoff was nearing a conclusion.
“That means in the next two and a half weeks, we’re going to have a Bond Commission meeting that frees up all the LoCIP and paving money that you need, you can expect and you can count upon, and we’re going to get that done,” the governor said, sparking applause from local leaders at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities forum at Foxwoods Resorts Casino.
Administration officials even talked of tentative plans to hold a State Bond Commission meeting on Dec. 18. Once the legislature authorizes new borrowing the 10-member commission, which the governor chairs, also must approve the financing before bonds can be sold and funds released to towns.
Besides LoCIP — or the Local Capital Improvement Program — the other two stalled municipal grants paid for with bond dollars are earmarked for property tax relief and road maintenance.
Delays surrounding that last grant — Town Aid Road, or TAR — have been the biggest thorn in municipal officials’ sides. The state usually provides $60 million per year in TAR funds, delivering half in July and half in January. The other two delayed grants typically aren’t distributed until later in the fiscal year.
But communities use the TAR funds for summer road repaving, fall tree-clearing and winter snow removal. When the first $30 million in TAR funds wasn’t delivered this past summer, some communities scaled back road work, while others borrowed from their winter accounts.
If TAR funds aren’t released soon, local leaders say, those communities that already raided their snow removal budgets will have no choice but to scale back road repairs planned for this spring.
“I think many towns will choose to budget very conservatively,” Gara said. “That means they are going to put off projects that are beneficial to our state and local economy.CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said he thinks most people understood the governor was not pledging unconditional release of delayed local aid in December — regardless of whether a transportation plan is adopted.
But DeLong also agreed that the inconsistent nature of state aid in recent years is taking its own toll on local roads.
“All of this deferred road maintenance actually increases the cost,” he said. “So we’re actually spending more dollars not doing this the right way.”
And this is the second time in three years communities have faced long delays to receive state aid.
A marathon battle between Democratic and Republican legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2017 delayed adoption of a new state budget for more than four months into the new fiscal year.

4 issues Lamont wants to discuss in special session this month
Christine Stuart
HARTFORD — Gov. Ned Lamont emailed legislative leaders Tuesday night and told them he wants to address everything from tolls, a long-running dispute over how hospitals are taxed, the 2020 bond package, and a dispute between restaurant owners and workers over wages for tipped workers, during a special session the week of Dec. 16.“I respectfully request be raised for consideration and a vote,” Lamont wrote. “1. Transportation Infrastructure. 2. Bonding. 3. Hospitals Settlement. 4. Restaurant Workers.”
Legislative leaders who were meeting with Lamont’s Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz while Lamont was at Foxwoods Tuesday speaking to municipal officials were leary about addressing all four outstanding issues during a December special session.
Lamont acknowledged the expedited time frame, “but believe these to be important issues which require resolution before year-end. As such, I have instructed my office to prioritize my time to remain focused and working in collaboration with each of you.”
Legislative leaders are prepared to hold a public hearing on the hospital settlement and they would like to address the 2020 bond package, which includes funding for municipalities. But it’s unlikely a transportation plan would be approved as part of a December special session.
“We have asked members to hold December 17-19 for a possible special session, and the Governor has presented an ambitious agenda with a spectrum of important issues for the legislature to consider and that we all want to accomplish,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said. “We are working with all caucuses and the governor to finalize potential legislation that could be acted on in that timeframe.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said they were briefed on the hospital settlement and don’t see any problem with moving forward on it.
As far as the restaurant legislation is concerned, Klarides said it should have been passed in September. She said legislation has been ready to go since Labor Day.
Lamont and three of the caucuses agree on a path forward with that legislation, but the Senate Democratic caucus has yet to take a position.
The draft legislation had a public hearing in October. It would require the state Department of Labor to create new regulations and rules regarding how restaurants segregate the hours of service and non-service work, such as rolling silverware and filling salt shakers.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, has told the other legislative leaders he would sign an emergency certification to allow a special session on the legislation to proceed. He bristled at their request for his position on the legislation.
“I had hoped that by offering to sign an emergency certification, we might move toward closure on at least this one special session issue since the others continue pending as they have for months while the General Assembly awaits additional information or plans from the administration,” Looney wrote.
Klarides has also been outspoken about the lack of a 2020 bonding package.“If the governor continues to hold the bonding package for cities and towns hostage the legislature should just act,” Klarides said Wednesday.
Earlier this year, Lamont tied approval of the bond package to approval of his transportation package.
His plan calls for the use of at least $100 million in general obligation bonds for transportation.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, has been vocal about the lack of participation from Republicans in drafting the bond package. Fasano maintains that Lamont has not been forthcoming about the package and has prevented Republicans from obtaining information about it.
“For months the governor has refused to share the bonding package with Republican lawmakers,” Fasano said Wednesday. “And the public still has not been shown any details about the new House Democrat/Gov. Lamont combined tolling proposal. The governor needs to release his bonding package and new tolling plan in its entirety and he needs to do it today. The governor has spoken ad nauseum about transparency and working together, but actions speak louder than words. Right now, Gov. Lamont’s actions have been less transparent and less bipartisan than even Gov. Malloy.”
Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, has said there’s nothing the Republicans don’t already know.
He said nothing about the bond package has changed since the end of July and there’s no document the Republicans don’t already have.

Phase 2 of $55M Meriden transit-oriented development debuts
Sean Teehan
Developers have completed the second-phase of a mixed-use, residential development in Meriden near the city’s Hartford Line train station.The Meriden Commons II project on State Street, which broke ground in July 2018, includes a four-story building with 49 residential units, and two buildings consisting of 27 townhouse-style units, and more than 1,500 square feet of commercial space. The new apartment buildings abut Meriden’s train station, which could both attract tenants who want easy access to public transportation, and add more riders to CTrail’s Hartford Line, said Sanford Cloud, chairman and CEO of The Cloud Company, which worked with Pennrose LLC to develop the project.Meriden Commons II represents the second phase a multi-part project. Meriden Commons I, which was completed in the summer of 2018, includes 75 residential units and 5,400 square feet of commercial space on 161 State St. Most of the residential units (120 out of 151) are designated as affordable housing -- meaning tenants pay a percentage of their income for rent. The rest are market rate The residential units at Meriden Commons I are fully leased, and residential units in Meriden Commons II are between 80 and 90 percent leased, Cloud said. NY Deli & Krispy Krunchy Chicken is the first business to set up shop in the retail space. The total cost of the two projects is about $55 million, which was largely financed by the state, Cloud said. “We’re hoping this can become a role model of what can be done [with transit-oriented development],” Cloud said. “The more people you have in a development like this, the more people are going to be using the transit district venues.” With the two affordable housing projects complete, Cloud said his company and Pennrose are in the early design phase of a mostly market rate apartment building project dubbed Meriden on the Green, which would add 120 residential units across two buildings. Eighty percent of those would be market rate, and 20 percent would be affordable, Cloud said. Cloud did not reveal that project’s estimated cost, but said developers have some initial architectural renderings, and are working closely with Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati and the city council on the buildings’ design.
Joe Cooper
A New York developer hoping to build a mixed-use project on the Connecticut River in Hartford has proposed a more modest version of his plan to woo the interest of city officials Developer George Bryant, president of Aqua Ark LLC, said his firm has compiled a dozen proposals for potential development on city-owned land near Mortensen Riverfront Plaza. Aqua Ark’s initial $40-million proposal aims to build two structures on land-based floating technology to house several retail and restaurant vendors and event or hotel space.Bryant on Wednesday said his startup is also pitching a scaled-down, $9-million development that would include a single-story “amphibious” promenade that would also be able to float on the water during flood conditions.  Bryant aired his various plans at the city’s planning, economic development and housing committee meeting Tuesday night. The smaller, single-level development includes a series of kiosks for food and retail vendors and a separate restaurant that would feature indoor and outdoor seating. Germany-based Clement and Westport engineering firm Collective Design Associates are supporting Aqua Ark, with design plans.  “We just want to make sure we are putting something forward that is fine-tuned to what the city thinks will work best there,” Bryant said. “We don’t want to develop something that is oversized or undersized.”  The waterfront redevelopment builds off Hartford City Councilman John Gale’s resolution last year that encouraged development along the Connecticut River. But the resolution has been met with criticism from environmental advocates, including Robert Klee, former commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Bryant said his firm is willing to address any environmental issues the proposals may pose to existing levees and other underground barriers protecting the city from river flooding. Riverfront Recapture, the not-for-profit organization managing Hartford and East Hartford's riverfront parks and Riverwalk trail system, has identified at least one potential issue the proposal poses to a retaining wall. “We may have to remediate that,” said Bryant, who does not yet have any meetings scheduled with the nonprofit or the city. Aqua Ark has not completed a project in the U.S., but it has completed several floating developments in Europe and the Middle East.  The firm, which is working on a proposal for a floating development in the Bronx, pitched a similar waterfront project in Bridgeport in recent years, but city officials denied it. Bryant has not discussed his vision for waterfront development in Hartford with DEEP or the Army Corps. of Engineers, which would both need to grant permits for the project before it moves forward. The city and Riverfront Recapture would also need to award Aqua Ark various land use and development agreements for the development. Bryant said he’s optimistic city officials will support at least one his riverfront proposals. “We believe we have interest,” he said. “Members of the city council at the meeting last night appeared to be supportive from my side.”
 

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