Gov. Ned Lamont raised hopes Tuesday in remarks to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities that long-delayed state grants, including one for winter snow removal, would be delivered by Christmas. The administration clarified Wednesday that promise came with a major caveat.
Administration officials said the funding would be released only after legislators adopt a long-term transportation financing plan, something that legislative leaders say is unlikely until a special session in January.
Both the stalled funding and the transportation program rely on dollars the state borrows annually by selling bonds on Wall Street. And Lamont has said frequently he cannot be sure how much Connecticut can borrow for municipal aid, school construction, and other priorities, until it addresses a long-overdue rebuild of its aging highways, bridges and rail lines.
“The governor has always viewed a transportation plan as being inextricably linked to bond authorizations,” said Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss.
But cities and towns have grown increasingly impatient as a significant portion of their annual aid package from the state — about $150 million based on last fiscal year’s totals — hangs in political limbo.
“I think it’s unfortunate they are playing political games with municipal aid at the Capitol,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “It makes it almost impossible to plan for the future of our communities if we don’t know when funding will be released.”
Lamont, who’s been trying to convince lawmakers since February to approve tolls to help finance a 10-year transportation infrastructure plan, appeared to settle on trucks-only tolls last week with his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate majorities.
They outlined a framework that includes tolling commercial trucks, utilizing low-interest federal loans, re-purposing state financing from other priorities into transportation, and possibly tapping excess budget reserves between 2021 and 2024 — provided the economy remains strong.
A special session is possible in December, but only to consider a non-partisan issue: The settlement of litigation over Connecticut’s hospital provider tax.
Legislative leaders say passage of any bill involving tolls would be difficult in a pre-holiday special session, due to scheduling and travel conflicts. No Republican support is expected for any bill that relies on tolls.
Lamont had shared his optimism Tuesday with municipal leaders that the transportation-bonding standoff was nearing a conclusion.
“That means in the next two and a half weeks, we’re going to have a Bond Commission meeting that frees up all the LoCIP and paving money that you need, you can expect and you can count upon, and we’re going to get that done,” the governor said, sparking applause from local leaders at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities forum at Foxwoods Resorts Casino.
Administration officials even talked of tentative plans to hold a State Bond Commission meeting on Dec. 18. Once the legislature authorizes new borrowing the 10-member commission, which the governor chairs, also must approve the financing before bonds can be sold and funds released to towns.
Besides LoCIP — or the Local Capital Improvement Program — the other two stalled municipal grants paid for with bond dollars are earmarked for property tax relief and road maintenance.
Delays surrounding that last grant — Town Aid Road, or TAR — have been the biggest thorn in municipal officials’ sides. The state usually provides $60 million per year in TAR funds, delivering half in July and half in January. The other two delayed grants typically aren’t distributed until later in the fiscal year.
But communities use the TAR funds for summer road repaving, fall tree-clearing and winter snow removal.
When the first $30 million in TAR funds wasn’t delivered this past summer, some communities scaled back road work, while others borrowed from their winter accounts.
If TAR funds aren’t released soon, local leaders say, those communities that already raided their snow removal budgets will have no choice but to scale back road repairs planned for this spring.
“I think many towns will choose to budget very conservatively,” Gara said. “That means they are going to put off projects that are beneficial to our state and local economy.”
CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said he thinks most people understood the governor was not pledging unconditional release of delayed local aid in December — regardless of whether a transportation plan is adopted.
But DeLong also agreed that the inconsistent nature of state aid in recent years is taking its own toll on local roads.
“All of this deferred road maintenance actually increases the cost,” he said. “So we’re actually spending more dollars not doing this the right way.”
And this is the second time in three years communities have faced long delays to receive state aid.
A marathon battle between Democratic and Republican legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2017 delayed adoption of a new state budget for more than four months into the new fiscal year.