Today the state’s Planning and Development Committee passed two bills that — if they become law — will create vast new powers for state and regional bodies over local governments in Connecticut.
The two bills — which started out as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 6851 — were introduced without much fanfare despite the huge changes they make to the power and tax structures in Connecticut.
Senate Bill 1 is Senate President Martin Looney’s attempt to fix an old problem — how to reimburse cities and towns for lost property taxes from nonprofit hospitals, government offices, and universities.
But it does much more than just reimburse cities and towns for lost property taxes — instead it empowers the state to collect car taxes at a single statewide rate, with the state then redistributing those taxes back out to the towns.
A single statewide rate on car taxes makes sense (although, it should be noted, there is a strong argument that the car tax should be abolished). Cars don’t change value from town to town, unlike property, and high mill rates in cities because of low property values means the poor are hit hardest by the car tax.
But what is the rationale for putting the state in control of collecting the tax? Does anyone believe that if the state collects the money, the state will actually send it back out to the towns without grabbing a piece of the pie along the way? Is it a coincidence that this policy is being floated this year, when the state is terribly cash-strapped?
Sen. Looney’s bill also makes big changes to how commercial property is taxed, and would also redistribute some of that revenue through regional councils.
In other words, the bill reintroduces county governments by another name, with taxing and spending authority.
Do Connecticut residents want county governments? Of course our cities and towns should cooperate — and they already do cooperate — but there is little popular support for the reintroduction of county governments. Another expensive layer of bureaucracy is the last thing Connecticut needs.
The bill, as written, would also reallocate money from smaller towns to the cities. As state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, has said, our state income tax dollars are already redistributed. Our property taxes should stay under local control.
State property taxes already are ridiculously high, in part because of the many mandates put upon cities and towns by the state. This bill would mean property taxes in small towns would likely shoot even higher.
The second bill — House Bill 6851 — is also a power grab by state government. It would give a quasi-public state agency — called the Transit Corridor Development Authority (TCDA) — control over housing and commercial development around transit stops.
The bill was proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who somehow neglected to mention that he wanted a powerful transit development authority that could grab local property when he introduced his big, new transportation plan.
The bill has changed significantly since it was first introduced — for the better. Initially, the TCDA would have had the power to use eminent domain to condemn property around planned or current transit sites. As amended, the bill keeps eminent domain authority with municipal and state lawmakers.
The bill also no longer has the language that municipal governments “will” comply with the TCDA. Now local authorities would delineate the land designated for transit-oriented development, then enter into an agreement with the TCDA to turn that property over.
The problem remains, though, that once the TCDA has the agreement in hand, it gets almost all the power to develop the property the way it sees fit, with little oversight by the governmental entity with the greatest stake in the outcome: the town.
Rep. Bill Aman, R-South Windsor, who is the ranking member on the Planning and Development Committee, said the committee worked well together to change the language significantly, but he still voted against the bill because he said he still had philosophical concerns with it.
“Is this something we want the state to do?” he asked. “Should the state be coming in to manage this development, or should it be left up to local governments and private developers?”
Indeed. It also begs the question — why does Gov. Malloy need a TCDA?
The most obvious answer: He wants more power and control over the development of land around the rail sites along Metro-North, including around the train station in New Haven, and along the Springfield rail line and the Hartford-to-New Britain busway. The benefit to the governor is clear — but what about the rest of us?
This kind of centralized control over land development is not how we do things in Connecticut.
Hopefully both bills will be stopped.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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