Business, labor join to back lockbox
Among the many issues that highlight the slog of righting Connecticut’s economy, the so-called lockbox for transportation spending stands out.
Voters will have a chance to weigh in on Election Day, Nov. 6, in a referendum question that’s both simple and complicated.
It’s simple because the measure is straightforward on its face. If the question passes, we’d amend the state Constitution to require any revenue in the state’s special transportation fund “be used solely for transportation purposes, including the payment of debts of the state incurred for transportation purposes.”
That’s in contrast to what we’ve done over the years, which is to divert money raised for highways and mass transportation to plug holes in the general fund. Governors of both parties and the General Assembly have raided the Special Transportation Fund by upwards of $500 million over the last 13 years.
Simple enough. Pass the ballot question, set up a lockbox — a silly word because lockboxes open and money disappears all the time — and move on.
”There’s no good reason not to vote for it,” said Mike Cacace, a Stamford lawyer and former Democratic National Committee member who’s co-chairman of a coalition called Securing Connecticut’s Future, formed to support the referendum. “Transportation is an integral part of keeping a community, and in this case the state of Connecticut, vibrant and economically healthy.”
All the simpler since there is no organized opposition. The coalition — a blend of business, labor, environmental advocates and universities — commissioned a poll in late May and early June showing 77 percent of voters in favor of the question, Cacace said Wednesday.
Where this gets complicated is in the history of the lockbox debate, and in what the constitutional amendment would or would not mean.
Clearly, what’s important is that Connecticut raises and spends money on high(er)-speed rail lines and highway improvements so we can reconnect with New York by car and a better Metro-North, and eventually, Boston by train. That’s what the state’s economy needs and we won’t be able to lower taxes until we see enough improvements to attract people — no matter what you hear in the campaign for governor.
But both parties have accused the other of raiding the transportation fund, which collects money from gasoline taxes, one-half of 1 percentage point of the state sales tax and some fees. More recently, some Republicans have tied the lockbox question to support for highway tolls.
And some, chiefly Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the House Republican leader, have accused Democrats of not only raiding the transportation fund, but also of crafting a ballot question that isn’t what it claims to be.
Indeed, it’s easy to see ways around the lockbox in the language, just as the biggest constitutional amendment in memory — the spending cap, tying state spending to income — has been, to be kind, a piece of Swiss cheese in mouse colony.
Still, it’s better than no amendment at all, and at least its intent is clear even if future legislatures and governors will be able to claw their way around it.
As for tolls, that has been a sort of whisper campaign by some toll opponents — the lockbox amendment clears the way for tolls, that argument says. The logic is that if toll supporters can prove all the money would stay in transportation, they’d have an easier time passing tolls. The flaw: The federal government requires that anyway, and besides, laws aside, all money is fungible at all times.
“This referendum item is completely neutral as to what the funding sources are and what expenditures are made. Its entire purpose is to safeguard those funds,” Cacace said.
The coalition’s main worry is not opposition but apathy and Connecticut’s lack of a ballot initiative tradition. Four years ago, a ballot question allowing early voting and absentee voting for any reason appeared poised to pass. It failed.
That’s partly because many people who vote for governor and perhaps other races don’t bother with the ballot questions. The dropoff amounts to about 15 percent of voters, and in the biggest cities in 2014, it was fully one-third or more.
The coalition plans a digital outreach campaign and at least one public event. But with a total of about $50,000 raised in total and a poll already done, there is no money left for TV or other traditional media ads, Cacace said.
This is a group that includes the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and the state AFL-CIO, among many other business and labor groups, including The Business Council of Fairfield County. When was the last time CBIA and AFL-CIO joined together? They do, from time to time, notably in favoring the state income tax decades ago.
The co-chairman is Michael Fedele, CEO of a Stamford IT consulting firm, who was Republican lieutenant governor under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell and ran for the top spot himself in 2010. The transportation lockbox is, for him, an economic issue based on boosting citizens’ confidence.
”This should not be a partisan issue,” Fedele said in a written statement. “This is clearly and simply the first step in what must be a robust debate about strengthening our transportation system and making it safer, efficient and more effective.”