Every so often a rare and welcome thing will happen, like a unicorn sighting or like driving to Stamford without getting in a traffic jam: the legislature has a moment of clarity and acts to protect us from its own worst impulses.
When they’re actually serious about it, these moments of clarity result in constitutional amendments. Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, recently proposed such an amendment that would make it much more difficult for lawmakers to sell or swap publicly-owned land. The amendment also would require that any proceeds from selling public land go toward buying more of it.
It’s a great idea. Taking extra care to save public land is vital in a small state plagued by sprawl, partly because we have a moral duty to preserve what little is left of our natural heritage for the next generation, and also simply because our wild and open spaces are so gorgeous. We live in a place with exquisite beauty only a short drive or bus ride away from wherever you are. If you haven’t visited your local state park or hiked one of the many trails snaking through the hills lately, I can’t recommend it enough.
It’s depressing that an amendment like this one is actually necessary. The legislature has a fairly iffy record on conservation lately, from underfunding state parks to outright mismanagement. Case in point: the infamous Haddam land swap that would have traded 17 acres of state forest to a developer for 87 acres of much less valuable land elsewhere. Fortunately that rotten deal fell through, but public lands are always vulnerable to a cash-starved legislature.
Witkos’s amendment isn’t the only current one that would accomplish this goal. The transportation “lockbox” — which the legislature will hopefully pass by a large enough margin that we will get to vote on it in November — would protect the Special Transportation Fund from, you guessed it, the greedy hands of the legislature.
It does seem odd that these proposals would be coming out of the legislature itself, but that’s how things sometimes go. The legislature is like someone with zero willpower and a huge, well-stocked liquor cabinet, and every once in a while they roll out of bed, head pounding, and some small part of themselves realizes they need to give the key to someone else for a while. That’s why they propose constitutional amendments, so that not even they can find a way around whatever ban they put in place when times get rough.
Sadly, handing the key to the voters doesn’t always work. Remember the spending cap? Voters approved that as an amendment to the constitution, but the legislature gave itself a tiny little out, leaving several very important definitions up to legislators to create. They never bothered, so the spending cap is mostly a minor inconvenience that is easily circumvented. That was one of the issues with the original draft of the transportation lockbox amendment; it would leave too much up to the legislature. To their credit, they’ll be going back to the drawing board, hopefully, this upcoming session to make that amendment stronger, but the danger remains.
Hemming the legislature in like this is also perilously close to governing by referendum, which is something that has worked out badly in other states. In a perfect world, amending the constitution would be something that would be done with care and great deliberation instead of as a stopgap to save the legislature from itself. We do not live in that world. My feeling is that as long as the legislature is in such a self-aware sort of mood, we should take them up on it.
While we’re at it, there are a few other amendments I’d like to propose. While we’re protecting open space, maybe we should also see to it that the state government actually maintains that space properly. Or, since we’re locking away funds for things we need, how about an amendment to fully fund our state universities, or our foster care system?
Maybe we can just pass an amendment that the legislature has to make sense. That would be even better.
In any case I hope Sen. Witkos’s amendment is approved by both chambers and lands on our ballots along with the transportation lockbox in November. The legislature owes it to the people to let them make decisions about whether to rein them in.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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