Griebel: Rushing CT’s transportation ‘lockbox’ is a mistake

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance (file photo)

CTMIRROR.ORG file photo

R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance (file photo)

State officials will move forward Tuesday with new constitutional language to protect transportation spending, despite warnings Monday from one of Connecticut’s staunchest “lockbox” advocates that a hurried approach could lead to trouble.

R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance, wrote that while a constitutional lockbox remains crucial, officials should wait until after a transportation finance study panel finishes its work in January.

Griebel, who serves on the Transportation Finance Panel, also urged officials to learn from the example of Connecticut’s constitutional spending cap.

“While we fully understand the critical importance of passing a resolution to put a well-crafted amendment before the voters on Nov. 8, 2016, we urge you to postpone the requisite debate and action,” Griebel wrote to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, adding the matter could be addressed once the regular 2016 legislative session begins on Feb. 3.

The business leader, who chaired the former state Transportation Strategy Board, noted that the present study group will issue recommendations next month on how to finance state transportation investments for the next three decades?

How can lawmakers effectively shield the revenue streams that support transportation until it knows what funding sources — such as tolls or gasoline tax increases — will be chosen to pay for these improvements?

“Such increases and new sources will generate both concern and controversy, and the ultimate approval of the constitutional resolution by both the Senate and House will be achieved only with the broad support of voters and private-sector employers,” Griebel wrote.

But the process for amending the state Constitution is complicated, and in some ways very time-sensitive. And leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority have said the Democratic governor has made it clear he wants the lockbox-approval process begun immediately.

When asked to respond to Griebel’s letter, Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia wrote in a statement only that, “We support a constitutional lockbox — and we believe it needs to pass.”

And when Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, was asked Monday about Griebel’s appeal to wait until February, Looney said, “The governor has asked us to do this now.”

Connecticut’s constitutional amendment process begins with the legislature.

If a resolution passes each chamber with at least three-quarters of the votes cast, it then goes before voters for final ratification in the next statewide election – which is in November 2016.

If it passes in both chambers – but fails to secure the three-quarters’ margin in at least one – it must be reconsidered by the General Assembly in 2016.

If it then passes both chambers of the legislature for a second time – by any margin – it would go before voters on the November 2018 ballot.

Griebel, who has consistently been one of the most vocal advocates for a constitutional lockbox, also has warned that if it’s not written properly, it could create the illusion of a fiscal commitment to transportation investment while actually enabling the funding diversions that transportation advocates argue have weakened the state’s infrastructure for more than a decade.

Griebel asked state officials to consider the case of the budgetary spending cap, which was added to the Constitution as an amendment in 1992.

Over the past decade that amendment has been the target of increasing criticism as rising retirement benefit costs ate up much of the allowable spending growth.

This has prompted governors and legislatures to either move expenses outside of the cap system, or to exceed the cap legally — both of which frustrated many fiscal conservatives.

“Since its inception, the ineffectiveness of the cap has been exploited for various reasons across the political spectrum” Griebel wrote.

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