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Will two constitutional amendments get lost?

October 24, 2018 GMT

Lost in the campaigns for governor, the top-of-the-ticket and the General Assembly, are two proposed changes to the state Constitution aimed at preventing lawmakers from raiding the transportation-infrastructure program; and disposing of state land without public scrutiny.

That’s if you turn over the ballot and actually find the Questions 1 and 2, on Nov. 6.

Four years ago, 147,548 people who cast ballots for governor did not vote for or against a proposed constitutional amendment to expand voting opportunities. Proponents of the legislation said the question, which was defeated in 131 towns and statewide by 491,447 to 453,070, wasn’t understood, and was under-publicized during the 2014 campaign.

“There was no organized effort to support it,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, stressing that the language adopted by the General Assembly to expand the use of absentee ballots and other efforts to encourage voting, was confusing for some. “I had people come up to me afterwards who said they voted against ‘that terrible thing that was going to take away our rights.’”

This year, while the so-called transportation lockbox was the result of years of legislative debate, including a bipartisan rejection of the proposal in recent years before it was finally adopted in this past legislative session, the land-coveyance legislation is much lesser-known.

Advocates worked for four years in attempt to put an end to late-night shenanigans in the General Assembly when senators and state representatives worked with insiders to give away or trade valuable state property with little transparency and oversight.

“Half of the process is in sunlight and half is in the dark,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, one of 135 groups that supported the bill.

If approved for inclusion in the Constitution, the measure would require public hearings in the General Assembly on any land swaps and transfers involving the state and private parties; and two-thirds votes of the House and Senate for any transactions involving property owned by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or the Department of Agriculture.

“This is the first environmental issue to be on a statewide ballot,” Hammerling said. “It’s significant and important to protect the public.”

Hammerling is the volunteer treasurer of the non-profit Connecticut Public Lands Coalition, Inc., which is trying to raise public awareness on the question, mostly through social media and some paid advertising. Maine, Massachusetts and New York have similar transparency. “We’ve done some polling,” Hammerling said. “We feel very positive that once people understand what it means, they are very supportive.”

The most-recent land conveyance was approved on the last night of the legislative session, transferring the 34-acre Hartford Regional Market on land owned by the Department of Agriculture, to the Capital Region Development Authority.

“It’s the largest fresh-food distribution center between New York and Boston and it’s the site of a farmers’ market,” Hammerling recalled. “They did it through a legislative amendment on the last day of the session with no public hearing. If it was such a good idea, why did they do it in the middle of the night?”

Leaky safeguards

But while the “lockbox” - whose purpose is to safeguard transportation infrastructure funding - won bipartisan support, even among the candidates for governor, it may be leaky. The way the constitutional amendment is written, revenue supposedly collected for the Special Transportation Fund, mostly gasoline taxes and sales of petroleum products, could be diverted before it even gets there.

Since 2005, about $500 million was diverted from the Special Transportation Fund by lawmakers siphoning the funding for general government spending.

State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislative Transportation Committee, said the Special Transportation Fund is declining and is on a collision course with insolvency. “Any money must stay in the fund,” he said. “The constitutional amendment is a good thing because over time, as the monies accumulate in the fund, if the legislature is barred from taking the funds, it can eventually grow so we can address infrastructure needs.”

Veteran state Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, a longtime opponent of highway tolls who helped kill the original incarnation of the lockbox during a memorable debate on the House floor in December 2015, said that while he knows there are potential flaws in this version that will come before state voters on Nov. 6, he supports the constitutional amendment.

“In my mind this is a referendum on tolls,” Godfrey said Wednesday. “There is not enough money invested in transportation, not just roads and 300 less-than-safe bridges, but trains and ports have been withering.” He said that revenue has been shrinking in the Special Transportation Fund, while the needs are increasing. “Where’s the money going to come from?” he asked.

Godfrey said that the problem with the 2015 bill was there was no actual definition of a transportation expense. “Subsequently, there was a statutory definition that raised my comfort level much higher,” he said. “But the thing we have to be careful of, however, is that there is no requirement to actually put anything in the transportation fund. It’s not a guarantee. It’s a lockbox, okay, but the question goes begging: Who has the key? The legislature, the governor, the commissioner of transportation?”

A lawyer and legislative scholar, Godfrey warned that putting policy decisions into the Constitution can be problematic. Constitutions are to create a government structure and list personal rights. “When you start getting down into the weeds, where we’re going to put policy and spending decisions in the Constitution, problems arise,” he said.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT