A Metro North train on the New Haven line Mirror file photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy urged the public Monday to join him in pressuring the General Assembly to support a state constitutional amendment to safeguard budget revenues earmarked for transportation.

Speaking with reporters while reviewing upgrades at the New Haven rail yard, the governor also said his goal is to have a proposed amendment before voters for final consideration on the 2016 ballot, when the presidential race traditionally ensures a higher turnout.

Malloy’s statements also come just a few days after his administration announced weakening income tax receipts that could worsen a major projected deficit starting in mid-2017 beyond $1 billion.

The governor’s fellow Democrats in legislative leadership have said shielding transportation from potential budget cuts – amid a deficit of that scope – would only put more pressure on other equally vital programs.

People ask, what’s the next big step we could make in modernizing our transportation system? It is to get the legislature to adopt a constitutional lockbox,” Malloy said. “We do that, we establish faith with the citizenry of the state of Connecticut, they’re going to support the kinds of investments that we are making.”

“In the coming months, we’re going to need to really ramp it up so that the legislature hears from the citizens,” Malloy added. “They don’t want transportation dollars being spent in any other way.”

The governor convinced legislators during the 2015 regular session to dedicate a portion of sales tax receipts annually to transportation. That means about $160 million this fiscal year, $260 million in 2016-17, and an amount equal to one-half of 1 percentage point of sales tax receipts every year after that. In 2017-18, that half point would translate into $362 million for transportation.

The administration says these funds – coupled with existing retail and wholesale fuel tax receipts and miscellaneous motor vehicle fees and other revenues – would maintain the existing transportation capital program and pay for an expansion over the next five years.

But legislators also wrote a similar plan into the new budget to dedicate sales tax receipts to increase municipal aid – eventually assigning one-half of 1 percentage point for that purpose.

Those funds would be used to: cap municipal property taxes on cars in roughly one-third of all cities and towns; enhance payments to communities with large quantities of tax-exempt property, such as private colleges, hospitals and state-owned buildings; and increase overall aid to all municipalities.

Both House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said earlier this summer that they would be reluctant to carve out special budgetary protections for transportation funding, especially given that nonpartisan analysts already project a $927 million deficit built into the first fiscal year after the new biennial budget ends, starting in July 2017.

If transportation is immune from budget cuts, that only increases the likelihood that other programs would face cuts, they argued. Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Adam Joseph reinforced that argument Monday, saying “a lockbox is just as appropriate for property tax relief” funding as it is for transportation revenues.

The governor has said he wants the sales tax transportation funds shielded from cuts in a constitutional amendment, but hasn’t set what other transportation resources, if any, he would include in the “lockbox.”

Malloy originally sought a special legislative session for this fall for a constitutional amendment, though legislative leaders have dismissed that possibility. The regular 2016 legislative session starts in early February

The governor said Monday that he would use the next few months to rally support, adding he still hopes voters could be given a chance to ratify a constitutional amendment creating a transportation lockbox in November 2016.

“I would love to see that constitutional amendment on the ballot in a presidential year when we see the largest numbers of our citizenry coming out to vote,” he said. “That’s what my goal is, and I’m asking the citizenry to put pressure on their legislators, as I will as well, to make sure we have that contract with the citizens of the state of Connecticut.”

According to the state Constitution, an amendment can be placed on the ballot by the legislature in one of two ways:

If both the House and the Senate approve an amendment, and at least 75 percent of each chamber’s membership supports it, the amendment would go on the next statewide ballot. In this case, that would be the 2016 election.

If the House and Senate both back the amendment next session, but one or both of them approves it with less than 75 percent support, it would have to be reconsidered by the 2017 General Assembly.

If the resolution were then to pass both chambers, by any margin, for a second time, it would be placed on the 2018 statewide ballot.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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