(Updated) Attorney General Richard Blumenthal urged the governor and legislative leaders Tuesday to restore charitable funds taken from three special license plate accounts.

Connecticut drivers, who care about specific causes, paid extra fees for Wildlife Conservation, Greenways, and Animal Population Control license plates, but Blumenthal says the General Assembly and the Gov. M. Jodi Rell “illegally” took the money from those funds and ignored the intent of contributors.

“Constitutionally that money must be restored,” he said. “Connecticut has violated the law and the public trust by illegally diverting this money.”

Last October Blumenthal issued a similar legal opinion and was able to get the General Assembly to restore $450,000 in funding it had taken from the “Preserve the Sound” license plate program. He said the same should happen for the Wildlife Conservation, Greenways, and Animal Population Control funds.

Robin Kane of the Hope Spay and Neuter Clinic in Waterbury said money from the Animal Population Control program helped support two voucher programs: one to help low-income pet owners get their pets spayed and neutered and one to help spay and neuter feral cats.

Now, “there’s absolutely no money to fund these programs, which were successful and useful programs,” Kane said.

Kane, who spayed and neutered 1,824 pets since opening her clinic less than a year ago, said the success of the voucher program is proof that given an opportunity people want to spay and neuter their pets. She said it also cuts down on the influx of animals into shelters, which helps save taxpayers money at the local level.

Blumenthal says the money for the Wildlife Conservation and Greenways funds should be retroactively restored even though both those accounts were eliminated in the budget passed by the General Assembly on Sept. 1, 2009. The license plates are still available for purchase, but none of the proceeds go into those special accounts.

As little as $100,000 to $1 million has been taken from the three accounts, but Blumenthal said an audit should be done to determine the exact amount. 

Sandy Breslin, director of government affairs for Audubon Connecticut, said the Wildlife Conservation program is the only source of funding for “non-game wildlife” in the state and thanked Blumenthal for attempting to get it restored. She said her organization will be seeking the legislature’s support to restore the license plate program during the upcoming legislative session.

Legislative leaders seemed amenable to correcting the problems pointed out by Blumenthal.

House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, indicated the matter may be taken up “early” in the session that begins Feb. 3. Derek Slap, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said “We look forward to working with the governor to address this issue and then identify additional savings that can help mitigate the budget deficit.”

But Rell’s office wasn’t convinced the funds had been swept.

“The Attorney General is correct that charitable donations cannot be ‘swept’—and none of them have been,” Rich Harris, Rell’s spokesman said Tuesday. “In effect, nothing has been taken—and there is therefore nothing to ‘restore.’”

“In the case of the Animal Population Control account, the amounts attributable to charitable donations and license plate fees remain in that account,” Harris said. “The Greenways and Wildlife Conservation accounts were consolidated into the General Fund, but the budget also spends at least as much on these purposes as is received in charitable donations and license plate fees.”

Rell would support legislation to make sure future legislature’s will be unable to take these funds, Harris said.

Blumenthal responded to Rell’s statement Tuesday evening saying that based on the experience with the Long Island Sound account he believes an audit would be prudent.

“We continue to believe that an audit is appropriate and necessary to assure absolute confidence and trust by Connecticut citizens who contributed to these very worthy causes, especially in light of experience with the Long Island Sound fund,” Blumenthal said.