On the first day of his second term, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy laid the groundwork for an infrastructure plan by proposing a “lockbox” to ensure that transportation funds are used exclusively for transportation projects.
Malloy addressed a joint session of the legislature Wednesday shortly after being sworn in to a second term at the state armory.
During his 15-minute remarks, the governor continued to stress a theme he has highlighted since winning re-election November—Connecticut’s road, bridge and rail systems are aging and badly in need of repair or replacement.
“Simply put, our investments have not kept pace with our needs, and our residents and businesses are paying the price. It’s unacceptable. We need a new approach,” he said.
Malloy called for widening I-95 statewide, creating new commuter rail stations, and a “21st Century” bus service. But he focused Wednesday on creating a transportation lockbox for revenue raised for that purpose.He said that should include a bond “covenant” to ensure that borrowing for transportation is spent appropriately.
“No gimmicks. No diversions,” he said. “Send me a bill that accomplishes these goals and I will sign it immediately. And until that legislation is passed and signed, I will veto any attempt to levy additional sources of new revenue for transportation.”
During a recent press conference, Malloy left the door open to the possibility of reinstating highway tolls as a new transportation revenue source. On Wednesday, he referred only vaguely to how his plan would be paid for, saying his budget proposal next month would address the “first steps” of funding his long term plan.
“We also know that an honest conversation about our transportation future must include a dialogue on how we pay for new projects. While traffic congestion is getting worse, more efficient cars mean that our gas taxes will soon fail to cover current investments, let alone the new ones we need to make,” he said.
Following Malloy’s speech, lawmakers welcomed a discussion about improving the state’s transportation systems. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey called it “smart growth” and said reinstating tolls should be on the table.
“I think it’s time. I just think it’s unfair to the taxpayers of Connecticut that they are bearing the sole burden of financing the maintenance and growth of our transportation system currently. It’s time to share that burden,” Sharkey said. “All these people from all over the country use our highways to get from New York to Boston… yet it’s the Connecticut taxpayers who pay through our gas tax. That’s why I think tolls are the more fair and equitable way.”
Meanwhile, Republican leaders were skeptical that Malloy’s lockbox proposal would prevent the General Assembly from sweeping transportation funds and using them for other purposes. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides said the legislature raids the Special Transportation Fund “time after time.” She questioned how the lockbox would differ from an existing statute specifying that the fund should be used for transportation.
“Listen, we sweep funds all the time. Take it from here, put it there. Constantly. It’s a shell game,” she said. “Do we need to invest in transportation? Absolutely. But when you sweep that fund regularly and use it for things that aren’t high-demand projects, it seems somewhat hypocritical to me.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano agreed saying the lockbox would be meaningless unless it were amended into the state constitution rather than “a promise not to touch” the funds.
“We sweep everything we can get our hands on so unless there’s really a constitutional amendment, you can’t bind the hands of legislatures in the future,” he said.
However, Connecticut Business and Industry Association President Joseph Brennan said the issue has been on his group’s agenda for years. He said he was glad Malloy has put his weight behind it this year.
“Whether it’s a constitutional amendment, some other statutory mechanism, bond covenant—I think everything should be on the table,” he said. “We think it’s long overdue and we’re hopeful that by the end of the session we can have a bill that will give people confidence that whatever revenues are dedicated to transportation will actually go into shovels in the ground… and transportation projects.”
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the “proof is in the pudding.”
“If we have an opportunity to earnestly make a constitutional amendment of a lockbox, it is a huge step forward in us as a legislative body to really keep our word to make that critically needed investment,” Hwang said.