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CT lawmakers vote to add thousands of electric vehicles in decade

In hopes of shedding the state’s image as the “tailpipe of America,” Connecticut lawmakers on Friday passed sweeping legislation to electrify thousands of cars, trucks and buses in little more than a decade, sending the measure to Gov. Ned Lamont for his likely signature.

The House voted 95-52 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 4, overcoming opposition from Republicans who argued that it would saddle consumers with higher costs of everything from cars to groceries, while having the potential to overwhelm the region’s power grid.

Democrats — who suffered defeat last year with the failure of their plans to join a regional climate pact — rejected those arguments, saying time is running out to drastically lower the state’s carbon emissions.

“We’re not moving too fast, we might be moving too slow,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, one of the lead sponsors of the bill as chair of the Transportation Committee. “We have to move now.”

The legislation came into its final form earlier this week when Lamont’s proposal to adopt California’s emissions standards on medium- and heavy-duty trucks was rolled into a larger Democratic bill known as the Connecticut Clean Air Act, which requires the state to convert its fleet of roughly 3,600 cars and light-duty trucks to electric models by 2030, and set targets further out for the conversion to zero-emission buses used for schools and transportation.

In order to coax residents and other entities into making their own switch to electric, the bill would expand the state’s electric vehicle rebate program, which for the first time will be made available to businesses and municipalities. It also mandates that newly built state facilities and school construction projects include a minimum number of parking spaces with electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

To sweeten the deal for some, lawmakers included $15 million in vouchers to help businesses purchase more expensive trucks that comply with the new California standards, as well as $20 million in grants to help school districts purchase carbon-free school buses, which would be mandated statewide by 2035.

“The choice is clear: Adopting the California framework and the other great initiatives in this bill will be another important step toward cleaner air and better health outcomes for all residents, particularly those who live in our cities and along our transportation corridors, and also gets us headed back in the right direction on our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals,” Lamont said in a statement Friday night.

Lamont said he looks forward to “signing this important bill.”

Even with the legislation’s broad incentives, Republicans argued the bill would sharply raise costs on local businesses that rely on fleets of trucks to deliver their products and services. An analysis by the Connecticut Business Industry Association estimated the additional cost of the California-compliant engines was as much as $57,000 for each vehicle.

“People get rich off of these types of policies,” said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “The people that suffer are Main Street, the businesses that have to absorb all of the mandates that are put down on them, and there’s no real analysis of the returns.”

The passage of Senate Bill 4 came less than a day after state lawmakers gave final approval to legislation codifying Lamont’s goal of producing 100 percent of the state’s power from zero-carbon sources by 2040.

Environmental activists quickly hailed the passage of both bills, which they said were needed in tandem to address the state’s two largest sources of carbon emissions.

“This has been a banner week for climate policy in Connecticut. Capped off with the passage of the Clean Air Act, this session will go down in history as a strong statement of our state’s values ​​and commitment to providing a cleaner, healthier, more viable future for generations to come,” Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Lori Brown said in a statement.

A separate bill that would allow for direct electric car sales from manufacturers without dealerships in Connecticut is pending in the state Senate.

While Connecticut has seen some success in reducing emissions through the closure or retro-fitting of aging coal and oil facilities, emissions from vehicle exhausts remain the state’s single-largest source of carbon dioxide, and have grown even higher in recent years.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency sought to classify four counties in the state as being in “severe” noncompliance with federal limits on smog-forming ozone. Lawmakers also sought to point out that the cities of New Haven and Hartford have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation.

While much of Connecticut’s polluted air is blown in from states to the west, Democrats argued throughout this week that they should set a leading example to encourage other state and federal lawmakers to set stricter emission standards across the country.

Already, they noted, neighboring leaders in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have joined in adopting California’s truck emission standards. Connecticut already uses California’s standards for cars and light-duty trucks.

“We also have to be really attentive to the long-term costs of inaction,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “What happens to the cost of food when wildfires burn across California? What happens to the cost of food when in America’s bread basket there’s increasing and more vicious, catastrophic flooding? What are the costs to shoreline cities and towns as they see rising sea levels? What are the costs to our air quality?”

Legislative staff were unable to determine an overall price tag for the bill, writing in a fiscal analysis that the Department of Administrative Services could simply refuse to make the needed shift to electric vehicles if it proved to be cost prohibitive. If that were to happen, the agency would have to submit annual reports to lawmakers about their failure to meet the law’s requirements.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, called the lack of cost figures on the state’s electric fleet conversion “remarkably disingenuous,” and provided her own estimate — $230 million — though it did not appear to factor in any of the money that state government routinely spends to replace older vehicles.

In the private sector, the legislation proposes to pay for the increased subsidies for electric vehicles by transferring all of the clean air fees currently charged on vehicle registrations — about $8 million a year — to the Connecticut Hydrogen and Electric Automobile Purchase Rebate program, a policy that drew even some Republican support.

The legislation also reformed the CHEAPR program by giving priority to low-income applicants and those in marginalized communities. In addition, it created a new “Right to Charge” that allows renters and condo residents to install charging stations at their own cost, while also making such upgrades exempt from property taxes.

Another $75 million in bonding is included in the bill to upgrade traffic lights to reduce traffic and idling — a provision that Democrats repeatedly noted enjoys bipartisan support.

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