It is with some amusement that I’ve been watching the ongoing discussions in Hartford about a proposed “lockbox” for revenues meant to be used for transportation. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has recently reiterated his call for a constitutional amendment to ensure that taxes collected expressly for transportation initiatives are used as such. Sounds like a good idea, right?
In a recent session with reporters, Transportation Commissioner James Redeker certainly made a compelling case for increased spending in his department.
Connecticut’s roads are crumbling, with 35 percent of the state’s bridges rated functionally obsolete or structurally deficient and 41 percent of state and local roads in “poor” condition. Such conditions add an average of $661 per year for drivers, presumably from potholes and other nuisances necessitating front-end realignments or causing accidents.
Poor transportation infrastructure makes the state less desirable to business — and that’s the last thing we need, given our crummy economy. Indeed, according to Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith, not only is access to transportation one of the most important factors businesses consider when they’re relocating, but it has replaced talent of the workforce as the number-one factor.
The problem is that when taxes are raised to support transportation, lawmakers have this dreadful habit of spending the money on other things like awarding funds and favors to preferred constituencies. Meanwhile, roads and bridges can wait for another day.
So in calling for a lockbox for transportation revenues, as Al Gore did for Medicare 15 years ago, Malloy is essentially admitting that our political system is broken. If we don’t force the legislature to set the funds aside, then they will spend it on other things. How do we know this?
Because they have done precisely that, not only with transportation but with funds that were supposed to be set aside for public-employee pension funds. Though the Malloy administration is to be commended for taking steps in recent years to raise the level of funding, the state employee pension system was still well less than half funded as of 2014, while the teachers pension fund was relatively well off at 70 percent in 2008 but fell to 59 percent with the Great Recession.
And as revenue projections continue to falter along with the fortunes of Wall Street, the spending class in Hartford will be under even greater pressure to find the necessary funds to dish out on their favored projects.
With few exceptions, most lawmakers take a dim view of lockboxes, which limit their options and might very well exempt the item in the lockbox from budget cuts at the expense of some other project they would like to cut instead. In other words, it gives the power of the purse to someone else and lawmakers hate that.
There are exceptions, such as freshman state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, who has called for a constitutional amendment to block any cash from being taken from the state’s $1.3 billion Special Transportation Fund, recently replenished with a half-a-percentage-point sales-tax increase, for anything other than transportation.
Why take such a drastic measure? Because if simple legislation establishing the lockbox was passed and signed by the governor, it could be overridden by another piece of legislation. Lawmakers could always find an excuse to cancel transfers to the transportation fund: an emergency or a budget shortfall that would force unacceptable tax increases or painful cuts in services.
But even a constitutional amendment would face obvious hurdles. First of all, legislation calling for the amendment to be put on the ballot would have to pass in the General Assembly by a three-quarters majority.
Secondly, as legal scholar Dan Klau recently opined, unless the wording of the amendment contains specific language allowing the state courts to decide cases involving alleged violations of the lockbox, the state Supreme Court will likely treat lockbox lawsuits as “political questions over which the judicial branch has no jurisdiction.” That means, Klau argues, a constitutional amendment would be little more than “feel-good” in nature and “legally meaningless.”
Oh and another thing. Do you think three-quarters of the General Assembly would vote to delegate any budgetary authority to the judicial branch? Not on your life.
The lockbox amendment is a nice idea but there’s a greater chance that Sen. Richard Blumenthal will become camera-shy than for the amendment to work. The only way to keep transportation funds where they’re supposed to be is for voters and taxpayers to insist that lawmakers keep them there and to vote against them if they do otherwise. Like most people, politicians understand the threat of losing their jobs.
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