By Jon Lender | Hartford Courant | Mar 15, 2019 | 1:59 PM
Gov. Ned Lamont’s stumbling start in his effort to win approval of tolls on Connecticut highways has created what some well-connected political consultants and lobbyists apparently see as a lucrative business opportunity — and now they have drawn up an unusually blunt playbook for how to sell Lamont’s tolling plan to state legislators and citizens who are sharply divided on the question.
The 23-page plan was prepared for presentation during the past week to at least one private engineering firm by a seven-member team of consultants — including Roy Occhiogrosso and Brian Durand, two former top staff members in the office of recently departed Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — outlining a strategy to “engage advocates and supporters to coalesce around a winning and unified message on tolling to ultimately achieve legislative passage.”
The firm or firms to which they made their pitch would presumably seek to participate in some way — which is not discussed in the plan — in the development of the Democratic governor’s proposed system of electronic tolls that would collect hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Major engineering firms have made large sums of money performing studies and planning for construction of such tolling systems in other states. There’s no mention in the proposal of who would pay the consultants’ team, but it appears that at least part of the money would come from firms that might be involved in the tolling project.
The consultants’ 23-page pitch, obtained by Government Watch from a confidential source, says a March 6 legislative hearing on tolls at the Capitol complex in Hartford “cemented the partisan divide and frightened vulnerable legislators.”
Whether or not this particular proposal goes forward, the document provides an insight into the strategy and execution of campaigns to approve big legislative initiatives, which can be lucrative for people and companies that work in conjunction with the government on such projects. It plots how to marshal support and overcome opposition. It illuminates the sort of political business that gets proposed outside of public view, and is often consummated between private interests and the people’s representatives.
Lamont has already signaled he would be open to such ideas, having said on March 7 he is exploring bringing in private investment to help pay for constructing electronic highway tolls through a partnership with the state. The state would eventually issue a request for proposals to get specific plans from businesses if tolls win approval, but details of the public-private partnership have not been worked out.
The consultants involved in this new proposal are experienced and have built up many years of familiarity with the Democrats who control the governor’s office and legislature. They clearly have perceived the obstacles that the new governor has created for himself in his first big initiative — after promising repeatedly during the campaign that he’d only toll trucks, not passenger cars, and now going back on that pledge less than three months after taking office.
The consultants have not yet responded to a list of 12 questions from The Courant — including which firms have been presented with the proposal, what would make it worth their while financially and how the consultants would hope to make money on it. Advertisement
Meanwhile, Lamont’s director of communications, Maribel La Luz, said in an emailed statement: “This is the first we have seen this, but it isn’t a surprise because a lot of advocates have come forward to show their support for the Governor’s plan to improve our aging infrastructure and get CT’s economy moving again.”
‘Drive message’ in ‘aggressive fashion’
The consultants’ 23-page document, entitled “Connecticut Campaign for Transportation, 2019 Legislative session,” says:
- Popular support exists for tolling “when messaged properly” to say it would pay for maintenance and improvement of deteriorating state roads — because research shows that “by far, voters are more concerned with keeping CT’s existing roads in good working order than expanding or investing in public transportation.”
- To overcome resistance, a strategy would be developed “to drive legislative support for a tolling concept that will maximize revenue while holding CT citizens as harmless as possible (example: resident discount).”
- Political horse-trading might be useful. For example, the Democratic governor’s office and legislative majority could “use tolling to trade in on other issues; namely budget proposals for Republican issues.”
- “Convincing the legislature to vote for a comprehensive tolling bill — one that includes trucks and cars, albeit with a substantial discount for CT drivers, won’t be easy. Opponents have already framed this in simple terms: ‘it’s another huge tax increase.’ In order to win this fight we’re going to have to first reframe the debate — so that’s about ‘jobs and economic development,’ and not just another tax increase.”
- “And then we’re going to have to drive that message home in an aggressive fashion, using digital advertising to reach people where they now spend most of their time online: on their phones. The campaign will incorporate targeting insights and the best-polling messages from statewide and regional research.”
- Goals of the campaign would include demonstrating “the availability of popular support for a polling initiative and combat[ing] the well-organized vocal minority opposition that has seized the advocacy vacuum” — as well as creating “a favorable landscape for majorities in the legislature to cast a vote in favor of authorizing tolling.”
- “Government Relations Tactics” would include: showing legislators “how money earned via tolls can significantly improve their specific districts — driving the correlation between tolls and local improvements to infrastructure; highlighting the “vs.” factor by using “polling data to share statewide how CT residents feel when you compare tolls to an increase in gas taxes, property taxes, car taxes, etc.” and providing “legislative leadership the necessary political data to ‘whip’ their caucuses” into support for tolling. “[D]oes this data exist for Republicans?” the document asked.
- Another such tactic would be to “highlight the digital program to build confidence amongst rank and file members that the media landscape won’t be controlled by the opposition.”
- “Executing a digital advertising campaign will help demonstrate a groundswell of support, drive traffic to the website, and encourage people to take action. … Social media advertising on Facebook and Twitter will raise awareness and reach constituents and policymakers across the state” — and “high impact display advertising on publications with a high reach among influencers, such as CT Capitol Report, the Hearst Network, and the Hartford Courant, will get our message in front of policymakers.”
- “Targeting” methods would include using “geographic, demographic and interest-based targeting to reach the right audiences at the right time. … For example, with geographic targeting, you can target a town, a cluster of ZIP codes, or a Congressional District.”
A roster with Democratic political pull
The seven-member consulting team’s full roster is:
- Occhiogrosso, the former senior adviser who served as Malloy’s chief spokesman and oversaw his communications operation before leaving to become managing director in the Hartford office of the national political and public affairs consulting firm Global Strategy Group, whose clients included Malloy’s campaigns for election and re-election as governor. Occhiogrosso has registered with the state for several years as a lobbyist for HNTB, an international firm that does engineering consulting, construction management and architectural services. HNTB, which has an office in Rocky Hill, is expected to pay $150,000 this year for Occhiogrosso to lobby the state Department of Transportation, lobbying registration records at the Office of State Ethics show. HNTB says it “serves as engineering consultant to more tolling agencies than any other firm in the country.”
- Lauren Amaio, director of digital communications for Global Strategy Group.
- Durand, who was chief of staff for Malloy’s final few years in office, had worked prior to Malloy’s becoming governor with Occhiogrosso at Global Strategy Group. In January, after Malloy’s term ended, he launched a new consulting firm, Intersect Public Solutions, with Michael Mandell, another Malloy alumnus.
- Mandell, a former executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, was Malloy’s deputy re-election campaign manager in 2014.
- Lobbyists Chris VanDeHoef and Liam Sweeney, founder/CEO and principal, respectively, of Penn Lincoln Strategies, which bills itself as “a local full service public affairs strategy and communications firm.” (Editor’s note: Among Penn Lincoln’s other clients is the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, of which The Courant is a member.)
- Ben Josephson, senior vice president at the Boston-based O’Neill Associates, “which bills itself as New England’s leading public relations and government affairs consulting firm” and was founded by Thomas P. O’Neill III, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and oldest son of the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Josephson has been active for years in Connecticut politics with fundraising/consulting work. He says on the O’Neill Associates website he played a part in “the successful 2018 ballot referendum to create a transportation funding ‘lockbox.’”
Josephson registered as a lobbyist in Connecticut about a week ago for HDR, an international firm that provides engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services that has Connecticut offices in Glastonbury and Cheshire. HDR has experience in tolling, having performed a major study on that subject in Indiana in the past couple of years. It says that its staff is “experienced in progressive technologies such as open road tolling and adaptive traffic control systems that provide you more options in managing your projects and budgets.” Josephson is expected to be paid $72,000 this year by HDR, according to his lobbying registration form.
One possibility Lamont has mentioned to pay for development of tolls is that private investors could provide upfront money to construct an overhead toll system before motorists start depositing hundreds of millions of dollars a year into state coffers. The construction costs for Lamont’s plan — which includes tolling all vehicles on I-95, I-91, I-84 and Route 15 — are currently projected at $213 million. Tolls would not be fully implemented until the 2025 fiscal year. They would raise about $800 million a year.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.