Locking up transportation money: Legislators cheer on bill

Legislation that would prevent money earmarked for transportation from being funneled into the state’s general fund passed out of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee this week and is being heartily supported by Wilton’s state legislators.

Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26th District) and state Reps. Gail Lavielle (R-143rd District) and Tom O’Dea (R-125th District) are all in favor of HB 6039, which would establish a “lockbox” for transportation funds, stipulating that no moneys in the Special Transportation Fund may be used for any purpose not related to transportation.

This is not the first time this type of legislation has been proposed — Ms. Lavielle introduced several bills in the last two years — but it appears to be gaining traction this time around.

“I have been very concerned about this issue for a long time,” Ms. Boucher said on Monday. “This year it really resonated with our chairs,” she said, referring to Sen. Andrew M. Maynard (D-18th District) and Rep. Antonio Guerrera (D-29th District). Ms. Boucher is a ranking member of the Transportation Committee and Mr. O’Dea is a member.

She said instead of passing through an individual bill, the committee put together a committee bill.

“We wanted to make a statement,” she said. “We really wanted to secure these funds. They are being raided all the time.”

The gross receipts tax on gasoline, which is over 7%, was instituted to pay the interest on loans and bonds that were paid off long ago, Ms. Boucher said. “Now they are using it for the general fund,” she said of the administration, “which we find is outrageous.”

She said the bill has a better chance than in previous years because of its widespread support, “but the administration will probably oppose it, and that’s where the tension is going to be.”

Ms. Lavielle is also an avid supporter of the bill.

“I’ve pounded this one to death,” she said, noting she has testified on the issue four times.

“When you are talking about something like tolls, which is looking for more revenue, you shouldn’t even touch it until you’ve taken steps to manage the revenue you already collect.”

Ms. Lavielle said last year $70 million was taken from the special transportation fund to help close the general budget deficit.

Revenue from the fund is projected at $1.234 million this year, she said. In fiscal year 2014 it is projected to be $1.336 million and $1.342 million in fiscal year 2015. This money comes from bus and rail fares and the gasoline tax.

Repair and upgrades to transportation services over the next few years are expected to cost $5 billion to $8 billion, Ms. Lavielle said.

“We’ve always depended a great deal on money from the federal government,” she said. “That is drying up. If we cannot protect the revenue we have, going out to get more is abusing people who are driving and taking mass transit. We are taking the money and using it for something else.”

Mr. O’Dea said he does not know if the bill will pass, but said a “lockbox makes sense” to him.

“Anytime there’s money in a fund, the idea is to use it where there isn’t money,” he said.

“If tolls were to pass, I would try to get the lockbox idea passed,” he said.

Constitutional amendment

The Transportation Committee also voted favorably on House Joint Resolution 63, which proposes an amendment to the Connecticut Constitution that would also protect Special Transportation Fund moneys from being diverted to non-transportation purposes.

Mr. O’Dea said he thought that was “a stretch,” but could see pushing for an amendment that would reduce the gas tax by the amount of revenue raised by tolls, should they be implemented.

“I think that would be a welcome reprieve,” he said. “The argument I hear is out-of-state people will pay [the tolls], but unless we reduce taxes for residents, they will be paying more.”

Ms. Boucher said she might be in favor of a constitutional amendment. “Laws are more easily broken than a constitutional amendment,” she said.

But the road to a constitutional amendment is lengthy.

“It is an extraordinary step and a difficult one,” Ms. Lavielle said.