It should have been a slam dunk. Both parties seemed to agree at the beginning of the legislative session that if they were going to dedicate more funding to transportation, that money should be locked up and used solely for transportation.
The session ended last week and neither piece of legislation creating a so-called “lockbox” for transportation money was approved.
One of the bills would have changed statute and the other was a constitutional amendment that would need to be approved by voters after the legislature either passed it with a super majority or passed it two years in a row. In either case, it takes more than one year to amend the state constitution.
At a press conference Tuesday touting future expansion of the Charter Oak Bridge, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he would love for the General Assembly to approve both the statutory lockbox and the constitutional amendment during a special session.
“It would be best if they did both,” Malloy said. “They certainly have to do the legislative one.”
He said the money the budget takes from the sales tax needs to go in the lockbox along with the money from the gas and oil taxes.
Malloy faced criticism from Republican lawmakers who pointed out that the budget approved by the General Assembly on June 3 cancels transfers from the general fund to the transportation fund and makes changes to the oil companies’ tax.
“We’re not truly increasing the funding to pay for these transportation projects because we are shifting the sales tax money and then not shifting general fund money as we previously would have,” Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, pointed out during a Finance Committee meeting last week.
The Malloy administration counters that’s not what’s happening. Even though they are stopping the transfer of general funds to the special transportation fund, they are also shoring up a funding stream for the special transportation fund to make it solvent.
“The bottom line is that the Special Transportation Fund, which is set to go broke in the next couple years, is now solvent for nearly a decade because of the Governor and this budget,” Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy, said. “That means more and better rail service, decreased congestion on our highways, and once-in-a-generation projects to build a Connecticut for the future. Instead, some in the GOP have opted to cherrypick basic facts about how the fund works, either because they themselves don’t understand it at all, or because they altogether oppose giving Connecticut a best-in-class system. I’m not sure which is worse, but the bottom line is that folks should stop obfuscating the simple fact that this is a historic plan with historic investments.”
On Tuesday, Malloy said by taking a half percent of the sales tax and locking it up means there will be an average gain of about $300 million a year in the fund dedicated to transportation so “we have the monies necessary to move the projects along.”
Malloy said he’s calling for the legislature to add the lockbox to the call to special session so it could be considered as a standalone measure and not part of a bill implementing the state budget.
Republicans contend a constitutional amendment is required to truly secure the transportation funds. Following Malloy’s announcement of his 30-year, $100-billion transportation vision, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano has said anything less than a constitutional amendment amounted to “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,” Fasano said.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said he would like to see it as a standalone bill.
“I’m glad to hear the governor’s on board,” Witkos said.
A constitutional amendment for a lockbox is the only way to protect against future legislatures or governors from raiding the funds, Witkos said.
Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate have both signaled they are willing to tackle the concept of a lockbox during a special session. A spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus said the call to special session includes transportation.