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Lawmakers mull transportation 'lockbox'

Published 1:46 pm, Tuesday, March 4, 2014
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Amid a renewed focus on the New Haven Line after a disastrous year for Metro-North Railroad, the General Assembly's Transportation Committee will decide whether to ask voters this fall to approve a constitutional change to block raids on the state's Special Transportation Fund.

For more than a decade, the Legislature has used the fuel tax and other revenue to help plug gaps in the state government's overall budget, including a cut in the 2014-2015 budget of $109.7 million dollars in dedicated revenue to the fund, which is used to service debt on transportation projects.

The committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment at 10 a.m., Wednesday, at the Legislative Office Building, 300 Capitol Ave., Hartford.

Committee Co-Chairman and state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said many colleagues as well as outside individuals and groups asked committee leadership to revisit the idea of a constitutional "lockbox."

"It is not getting any cheaper to fix our roads and bridges, which strengthens the argument to have a lockbox in place to establish safeguards," Guerrera said. "I'm 100 percent behind it, but it is a complicated process and we need to hear comments from the public about how it could work."

A resolution put forward by the committee proposes two options: to adopt the amendment during the current session to be included on the ballot this November or to wait until the next session.

"We need to see, because we want to be able to do it the right way and dot our i's and cross our t's," Guerrera said.

The Department of Transportation's 2014-2018 capital budget shows $3.5 billion in long-term, unfunded initiatives, including $1 billion for a moveable rail bridge in Cos Cob, $250 million to replace concrete ties and other major work to bring the New Haven Line into better repair.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the amendment, long supported by an array of business and transit groups, would protect the $1 billion-plus typically designated to the fund better than a planned statutory lockbox, which could be rescinded by legislators in a budget pinch.

Last year, the Legislature unanimously approved a bill to institute such a statutory lockbox to end the raids, though the language was changed to delay it going into effect until 2015.

"I didn't know the Transportation Committee was going to raise this, but I'm happy they have," Lavielle said. "The argument I gave last year is that a statutory lockbox seemed to be so insecure that it would be a very good idea to have a constitutional amendment on top of it."

In order to reach the ballot this November, the resolution would need to be approved by three-quarters of the lawmakers in both the state House and Senate. In the event it is approved by a lesser margin, the resolution would be published with other laws passed during a session and voted on again by the next elected General Assembly, which would need to pass it by a simple majority in order for the amendment to appear on a statewide ballot.

On Sunday, Andrew Doba, spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, indicated the proposed lockbox was superfluous, given the governor's commitment to end transfers and reductions to the revenue of the fund after 2015 and Malloy's greater commitment to the fund since 2011 than in previous years.

Malloy has also pledged to commit the entire proceeds of the state's petroleum gross receipts tax to the Special Transportation Fund starting in 2016, according to his budget office.

"It's a simple fact that we are spending more state money on transportation than ever before, making long-overdue investments that will help the economy and improve our quality of life," Doba said. "Given that the governor has committed to eliminating any transfers from the Special Transportation Fund, this bill seems unnecessary at best."

Jill Kelly, co-chairwoman of the Citizens Transportation Lobby, said the surge of backlash from commuters after a year of protracted train trips, service disruptions, two major derailments and other calamities on Metro-North's New Haven Line has pressured state government to reckon with the railroad, as well as the state's highway system.

"My sense is the Legislature has finally realized we are in dire circumstances in terms of funding of many very necessary improvements on Metro-North," Kelly said. "I am optimistic in believing that they will vote to put the lockbox in."

State Rep. David Scribner, R-Danbury, the sponsor of last spring's successful statutory lockbox bill, said the success of the law will make it difficult for legislators to explain balking at the constitutional change.

"(Given) the fact we've already established a commitment from virtually every legislator who supported the proposal last year for a lockbox, this is really just taking it to a different level," Scribner said. "But it is a lot harder to unravel a constitutional amendment than a statute."

Lavielle and Scribner both said the wording of the actual referendum would need to be explicit. Despite being approved by voters, the state's constitutionally approved spending cap, put in place in 1991, has not gone into effect because the state General Assembly has never voted to approve definitions for the cap, they said.

"If it requires legislative action to put into force, or if the legalese isn't written correctly, it could take forever to put it in place," Lavielle said.