HARTFORD, CT—While the focus in recent days and weeks has been on who will be Connecticut’s next governor, there are also two other hot button issues that will be decided by voters on Election Day.
They are an initiative to earmark — or place into a “lockbox” — certain pots of money for the Special Transportation Fund, and a constitutional amendment to protect state land from being sold or given away without public input.
The transportation lockbox amendment, which is the first question, would reserve all money earmarked to go into the Special Transportation Fund to be used solely for transportation purposes, including paying down debt on transportation bonds.
He’s not running for re-election, but Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said it is vital that voters pass the lockbox.
“It is so important that it be passed,” Guerrera said last week at a press conference detailing more than 300 Connecticut bridges in disrepair. “We can’t keep putting band-aids on this.”
Following the Mianus River Bridge collapse in 1983 in which three people were killed, the state created the Special Transportation Fund to make sure infrastructure improvements were funded. Revenue from the gas tax was put into the fund on a regular basis at the beginning.
“Back then we had one of the best bridge programs in the United States,” Guerrera said. “Unfortunately we had some gaps in our budget and that fund got raided.”
According to the 2017 study conducted by TRIP, a national transportation nonprofit, more than 8 percent of Connecticut bridges, 308 in total, are considered structurally deficient. This means they have significant deterioration and must be replaced or repaired.
The report states 9 percent of bridges in the Bridgeport-Stamford area, 8 percent in Hartford, and 7 percent in New Haven are structurally deficient.
The General Assembly approved an amendment two years in a row to get the question on the ballot. Voters will now have to decide whether they want to lock up certain revenue streams dedicated for transportation.
Some Republicans wanted to see a stronger definition for revenue going in and coming out of the so-called lockbox. The definition on the ballot would still allow lawmakers to sweep the funds if they felt it was necessary.
The House approved the resolution, sending it to voters in 2017 by a vote of 101 to 50. Twenty-two Republicans joined all 79 Democrats in voting for the measure. The Senate passed the measure on a 29-7 vote. Eleven Republicans joined with Democrats in approving the resolution.
Every year the General Assembly votes to convey land or grant easements to residents or businesses through deals negotiated by state agencies, usually the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The annual omnibus bill usually lands on lawmakers’ desks shortly before they adjourn and leaves many wondering whether the state is getting the best bang for its buck.
Usually, according to environmentalists, it’s not.
If voters agree, the General Assembly will no longer be able to enact any legislation requiring a state agency to sell, transfer, or otherwise dispose of any real property or interest in real property that is under the custody or control of such agency to any person or entity other than another state agency, unless a committee has held a public hearing regarding such sale.
“The transfer of the Hartford Regional Market to the Capital Region Development Authority in the waning hours of the last day of session should be a wake-up call that public lands are changing hands without public input or scrutiny,” Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, said.
“By requiring public hearings with community input, this measure will require the General Assembly to be transparent and open about its decisions on state parks and open spaces. It will end the secrecy around political deals to give away our parks and forests,” Hammerling said.
Hammerling noted that if the voters approve, the new law will also mandate that the changing of hands of state parks, forests, wildlife management areas and state-owned agricultural lands, the General Assembly must attain a 2/3 vote in each chamber.
“Not everyone can afford to travel to special places like the Grand Canyon, but we have numerous state parks and forests right here in Connecticut to explore,” Hammerling said.
Hammerling added it is often forgotten that these lands are money-makers for the state.
“Public lands provide great value to Connecticut and deserve greater protection,” he said.
“According to a UConn economic study, state parks and forests attract 8 to 9 million visitors, generate over $1 billion in revenue for the state, and support over 9,000 private sector jobs every year. Furthermore, more jobs in Connecticut depend on outdoor recreation (69,000) than on the aerospace and defense industry (60,000), according to a 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association,” Hammerling said.
When the Senate passed the bill, Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton said: “We’re trying to preserve open space.”
Witkos noted that the state has a goal of having 20 percent of open space protected from developers by the year 2020 “and we’re only in the high teens — we have a little way go.”
There’s bipartisan support for the initiative. It passed the Senate on a 35-0 vote and 118-32 in the House — four votes more than the three-quarters needed to get it on the ballot.