November 8, 2018

Voters overwhelmingly ratify transportation ‘lockbox’

HBJ File Photo
HBJ File Photo
HBJ FILE PHOTO
Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.

Voters overwhelmingly ratified two amendments to the state Constitution Tuesday, including a new legal "lockbox" to safeguard funds earmarked for Connecticut's transportation program.

Voters also ratified a second amendment that would prohibit the legislature from selling, conveying, or swapping state land or buildings without first holding a public hearing.

Though final numbers hadn't been tallied late Tuesday, unofficial results showed more than 80 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of each amendment.

"The voter support for the transportation lockbox is a step in the right direction for Connecticut," said Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association and one of the founders of Move CT Forward — a coalition of construction businesses, trades and other transportation advocates. "It is a signal of fiscal restraint and an indication that improving mobility is a priority."

"This is an enormous victory for our state's future as Connecticut desperately needs investment in transportation infrastructure," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a staunch advocate of the amendment, wrote in a statement late Tuesday. " While surrounding states have made real investments, Connecticut has allowed our roads, bridges, tunnels, and rails to fall into a state of disrepair, hurting our economy and making our infrastructure less safe for the traveling public. … This constitutional lockbox is a necessary step forward to strengthening our state's economy and improving the quality of life for our residents."

For years, transportation advocates have touted the "lockbox" as the best defense against the tendencies of elected officials to redirect fuel tax revenues for non-transportation purposes.

The "lockbox" language effectively states that once a revenue source — such as Connecticut's 25 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax — is dedicated to the budget's Special Transportation Fund — it cannot be removed unless it is repealed entirely.

Critics countered that the "lockbox" language is a deterrent, but not a guarantee, against future legislatures and governors diverting transportation revenues for other purposes.

Shubert said Tuesday that while advocates recognize the lockbox is not perfect, it sends a clear signal to state officials that the voters give transportation funding a very high priority.

"Even with the lockbox, transportation funding remains unsettled," he said. "Now it is vital to ensure that the revenue streams are not tampered with, and that the definition of 'transportation purposes' isn't expanded to include a hodgepodge of General Fund items."

Some critics of the lockbox, including House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, argued that the amendment was just the first step in the playbook of those who hope to establish electronic tolling on all major state highways.

Malloy asked legislators three years ago to support a 30-year, $100 billion rebuild of Connecticut's transportation infrastructure, warning that decades of neglect had left the state's highways, bridges and rail lines overcrowded and badly in need of repair while creating an economic drag.

That initiative bogged down, however, as neither the governor nor lawmakers from either party would propose tolls — or any other major revenue-raiser — to pay for this initiative beyond the first few years. The governor, whose term ends in January and who did not seek re-election, would not support tolls or any other major, long-term revenue-raiser for the transportation program unless a "lockbox" amendment was enacted.

Malloy did secure State Bond Commission approval earlier this year, though, for $10 million to develop a strategic plan for the installation of electronic tolls, saying it would provide vital information that his successor and the 2019 General Assembly would need.

While the state budget's Special Transportation Fund is projected to run surpluses over the next three fiscal years, the administration says that's based on the dangerous assumption that Connecticut will ignore dozens of necessary strategic transportation projects, costing billions of dollars, in the coming years.

The other new constitutional amendment ratified Tuesday would reform — but not end —the legislature's longstanding practice of conveying surplus state property to municipalities and other entities in the waning hours of the annual legislative session.

An image from a campaign ad produced by the Protect Connecticut Public Lands Coalition.

The legislature traditionally closes each spring by enacting an omnibus bill with dozens of property conveyances. In most cases the property is not sold, but transferred to a municipality.

But while that bill is raised in a committee, it typically is chock full of last-minute additions that never have been subjected to a hearing.

"This was a huge victory for good government reform and the State of Connecticut," said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. "Requiring public input and transparency in the state constitution when the fate of public lands hangs in the balance is critical, and we are thrilled the voters agreed."

"The next step is to continue the dialogue with the public and policymakers as conveyance issues arise to ensure that the public always has a say," added Hammerling, whose organization also is a member of the Protect Connecticut Public Lands Coalition. "The coalition engaged hundreds of thousands of voters in the cause for transparency and protecting our public lands, and we are excited for the future of our state."

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