Transportation advocates were certain Thursday they want a new constitutional lockbox to protect planned new state investments in highways, bridges and railways.
But they weren’t as specific about how state officials could shield new transportation dollars and close a looming budget deficit roughly six times its size.
Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, who co-chairs the legislative panel that oversees financing for transportation projects, insisted that voters want every dollar currently earmarked for transportation spent for that purpose.
About 7 percent of this year’s $19.8 billion state budget, or $1.41 billion, is dedicated to the special transportation fund. It gets about 60 percent of its money from fuel taxes. The rest comes largely from various motor vehicle-related fees and — under a new plan enacted this June — a portion of general fund sales receipts.
“People say ‘I don’t mind paying the tax (for transportation) but I don’t want it to go anywhere else,” Cassano said during a mid-morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building.
And a constitutional amendment prohibiting the redirection of those funds for non-transportation purposes “is a marker we are serious about this,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.
But is it that simple given the huge budget challenges facing state government?
Under the plan approved by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators, overall transportation funding by the 2017-18 fiscal year — the first new budget after the November 2016 state elections — will be $195 million higher than it was last year.
But according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the general fund — which covers the bulk of the state’s operating costs — is on pace to run $927 million in deficit in 2017-18.
And that projection, which was issued in late June, doesn’t take into account two subsequent challenges:
The Malloy administration has downgraded income tax revenues for this year by about $200 million. Most or all of that problem is expected continue into 2017-18.
And the state Teachers’ Retirement Board voted to make technical changes, lowering expected investment returns on the pension fund for teachers. This will add $180 million to the state’s required contribution to that pension fund in 2017-18.
These problems could worsen the post-election deficit to a gap approaching or exceeding $1.3 billion.
How do advocates expect transportation funding to be shielded from cuts in the face of a such a large deficit?
Most of the rest of the state budget not fixed by contract already is facing cuts. And most of Cassano’s colleagues in the Senate Democratic majority already are urging Malloy to reverse emergency cuts he ordered in September to hospitals and social service programs.
Democratic legislators also are campaigning on a pledge to increase — not cut — municipal aid, after the 2016 state elections.
Would Cassano consider tax increases to close the deficit and stave off cuts to transportation? Most Democrats are wary of further tax hikes given that the two-year budget adopted last June raises taxes about $1.3 billion over the biennium while also canceling close to $500 million per year in previously approved tax cuts.
“Tax increases can’t be part of it,” Cassano said.
Other transportation advocates at Thursday’s press conference didn’t identify any spending cuts, and also wouldn’t endorse tax hikes — a move that could lose them support among many legislators.
“I think that’s a little out of my bailiwick,” said Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association.
“I actually think that’s up to the legislature,” said Mary Tomolonius,” director of the Connecticut Association for Community Transportation.
“That’s a discussion the governor and the legislature should have,” added Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.
And though transportation advocates lacked any fiscal solutions to Connecticut’s huge budget challenges, they hoped pressing the case for transportation investments would spur state officials to solve this crisis somehow.
Many of Connecticut’s bridges are 50 to 60 years old, Shubert said, adding they were built with a 50-year design life and face heavy daily traffic and rough winter weather.
“In the construction industry, we see that,” he said. “When you drive over a bridge, you don’t.”
State government has been siphoning fuel tax receipts and other resources away from transportation for too many years, Wray said, adding that upgraded highway, rail and other transit systems is the only way to attract more young professionals to Connecticut.
“If you’re on-again-off-again, on-again-off-again, you don’t get much done over a long period of time,” he said.
Malloy, a Democrat, has been the Capitol’s most vocal advocate for a constitutional lockbox for transportation funding.
But Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, another advocate for a constitutional lockbox, was skeptical Thursday about Democratic legislators’ interest.
“Today’s press conference was a political move to get headlines, after they refused to make a constitutional lockbox a part of the budget they negotiated back in June,” Fasano said.