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Mills becomes latest governor to express concern about regional fuel pact

Maine Governor Janet Mills (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)
Maine Governor Janet Mills (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Could Janet Mills be the next governor to hop off the TCI bandwagon?

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu left the multistate Transportation & Climate Initiative in a blaze of glory last month. The Republican governor’s brash exit — he declared TCI a “financial boondoggle” – prompted the natural question: Who could be next?

Of New England’s other governors, Mills seemed to sound the most cautious tone last week about TCI, which would impose a new fuel cost at the wholesale level by establishing a system of carbon pollution allowances for up to a dozen states. The new revenue would help subsidize alternative forms of transportation, such as electric buses and car-charging stations.

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Mills, a Democrat starting her second year as Maine’s governor, has made curbing climate change a major priority.

That’s similar to the primary goal of TCI: to reduce carbon emissions from the region’s cars and trucks by up to 25 percent over a decade. But in a brief statement on Friday afternoon, press secretary Lindsay Crete said “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.”

She declined to elaborate. One potential translation: Our residents are heavily reliant on cars, so there might be better ways of doing this.

Tony Buxton, an energy lawyer at Preti Flaherty in Portland, Maine, said “it’s asking a lot of her to support TCI” during the governor’s first two years in office, especially given her other environmental efforts. (Mills worked with Buxton at his law firm before she became governor.) He noted that Maine is the least dense state, in terms of population, east of the Mississippi. Driving is essential.

But Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and a TCI champion, cautioned against reading too much into Mills’ words. Mills wants to see Maine be carbon-neutral by 2045. To pull that off, Henry said, she’ll have to turn to the transportation sector.

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So what do the other New England governors think?

Of course, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is fully on board: TCI is a cornerstone of his $18 billion transportation funding plan, and his energy secretary, Katie Theoharides, is leading the effort. (The Baker administration expects up to $500 million in new annual revenue from TCI, starting as soon as 2022.)

Baker opposes a straight gas tax increase — something the House of Representatives is expected to advance on Beacon Hill in the coming weeks. TCI, however, acts like a gas tax because those pollution credits will likely drive up costs at the pump, possibly by anywhere from 5 cents to 17 cents a gallon.

A spokesman for Governor Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island said she is “fully committed” to the TCI goals, including an aggressive approach to lowering carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

In Vermont, Governor Phil Scott has expressed concerns about TCI in the past. He didn’t mention TCI by name in his state-of-the-state speech last week, but raised a few eyebrows when he said he prefers “incentives, not penalties” to transition Vermont to a greener future. TCI might be the last thing Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont wants to talk about right now. Lamont is trying to shore up support for a transportation bill that would revive tolls in Connecticut, a bill that could be taken up by lawmakers later this month. The tolls would only be for larger trucks, at 12 bridges in the state, but they still face resistance. (Lamont earlier wanted broader tolling.)

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A spokesman said Lamont is still weighing TCI, but has ruled out supporting a gas tax increase as the primary way to fund infrastructure improvements.

Sununu, meanwhile, seems to be enjoying the controversy: He said he’s happy other governors are “rightfully sounding the alarm on this new gas tax.”

Most of these states need legislative approval to join TCI, although the precise number remains unclear. There could be a 50/50 split in New England. Conservation Law Foundation attorney Staci Rubin says her group’s legal analysis shows Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut likely do not need legislative approval, while the other three states potentially will.

Publicly, at least, Baker’s people seem unconcerned about defections, even though they want a critical mass of state participation.

A spokeswoman said the administration is pleased by broad support seen among environmental and business communities, and the “robust participation” by the various Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The group is accepting public comments on TCI rules through the end of February, and expects to figure out who is out and who is in this spring. The caution expressed in Maine indicates TCI’s boosters might still have some persuading to do.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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