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OP-ED | Transportation ‘Lockbox’ Is Pure Pie In the Sky

by | Nov 6, 2015 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Courts, Opinion, State Budget, Taxes, Transparency, Transportation

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.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(5) Archived Comments

posted by: dano860 | November 6, 2015  8:31am

Mr. Klau is correct, just another feel good action. Just look at the budget cap, how’s that working?
There is no way the spending addicted legislative body in Hartford would leave any pot of money alone. The key, combination, code or any other device would be discovered and the box would be raided.
Your analogy of Dickie B. is great, it reminds me of the old story that still floats around under the dome in Hartford. It goes, The most dangerous place to be is between Dickie B. and a camera. He’ll show up for a garage door opening if invited.
The infrastructure needs attention if we expect to attract business but the money MUST be, somehow, dedicated to it and not the legislature, unions or special interests.

posted by: Biff Winnetka | November 6, 2015  10:44am

“The lockbox amendment is a nice idea but there‚Äôs a greater chance that Sen. Richard Blumenthal will become camera-shy than for the amendment to work.”

Funny!  And True!

All talk of “Lockboxes” is pure political kabuki.  It, and its proponents, should be mocked for the farce that they are.

posted by: art vandelay | November 6, 2015  10:37pm

art vandelay

In 1983 after the Mianus River Bridge Disaster, then Governor O’Neill through the legislature enacted a 10 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax.  The increased taxes were to be directed into a dedicated transportation fund to be spent on bridge inspections, road maintenance and expanded infrastructure.  Within a year the dedicated funds were redirected into the general fund.

In 1991 the Democrats did not have enough votes to implement Governor Weicker’s Income Tax.  In order to secure the necessary votes, Weicker offered a Constitutional spending cap as an assurance for their votes.  The income tax was implemented and the spending cap was ignored.  There is nothing to prevent dedicated transportation funds in the future to be redirected into the general fund.  The legislature is consistent in breaking promises to Connecticut taxpayers.

posted by: oldtimer | November 7, 2015  1:33pm

Nice Op-Ed… yet another reason why politicians and government cannot be trusted to do the right thing…

posted by: Rick Newton | November 8, 2015  7:30pm

No such thing as a lockbox.  Community Investment Act funds can only be used for four things per state statute.  But Malloy and the legislature managed to steal those funds for the next two years.

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