Nick Tabio

It is an unusual spectacle in U.S. national and state politics to witness direct democracy. Yet, when Connecticut voters reach the ballots this November, they will get the rare opportunity to directly amend the state’s constitution — and New Haven’s Environmental Advisory Committee is finding ways to increase voter awareness.

The Environmental Advisory Council, a subdivision of the New Haven City Government, met Wednesday night at City Hall to discuss their general agenda for the month. The meeting featured Greater New Haven Green Fund Board of Directors member Aaron Goode, who, while emphasizing that he did not endorse or dismiss either, spoke about two state constitutional amendments on which Connecticut citizens will vote on Nov. 6. The two amendments will prohibit lawmakers from using state transportation funds for nontransportation purposes and will require a public hearing on bills to authorize the transfer, sale or disposal of state-owned properties, respectively.

The council also touched on the topics of energy efficiency, plastic bag reductions and a failed attempt in May to amend the state’s water plan.

Goode was wary of the ballot’s language, emphasizing that those advertising the bill must make the voting procedure as clear as possible.

“I think that if you are encountering this language for the first time without any prior knowledge, you may find [the ballot’s language] less than completely transparent,” Goode said at the meeting.

The transportation lockbox revenue amendment would require funds derived from the state’s Special Transportation Fund to be allocated to enhancing publicly provided transportation. This is currently funded by various special taxes and fines levied by the state, including motor vehicle-related fines, a tax on petroleum and taxes on fuel. The proposed amendment follows similar successful measures recently taken by other states including Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Louisiana and California.

The transportation lockbox initiative failed to make the ballot in 2016 after not garnering enough votes in a 2015 legislative session. Yet, a 2017 legislative session saw the amendment make the ballot by a measure of 101 to 50 in the General Assembly and 29 to 7 in the State Senate. Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy supported the legislators’ decision to place the amendment on the 2018 ballot.

“We owe taxpayers a say in how the state should safeguard transportation funds from future sweeps by future legislatures or governors,” Malloy said in a press release directly after the May 2017 legislative session.

Interest groups that want lockboxes to protect other special funds welcomed this step towards potentially providing a lockbox for transportation funds. Environmental groups, such as Efficiency for All and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, filed a federal lawsuit in May 2018 arguing that the hotly contested state budget compromise directed $175 million intended for green bank and energy conservation funds to various other sectors.

Although the proposed lockbox would protect special funds for transportation, it would inhibit the government’s ability to fund other programs that it deems a priority.

Environmental Advisory Council Chair Laura Cahn said that the result of the constitutional amendment could be used to interpret the viability of future lockbox initiatives for environmentally friendly policies.

“Let’s see how this lockbox initiative goes with the vote and hear how things progress,” Cahn said. “Then we can take this issue up, of getting a lockbox for green funds.”

Both constitutional amendments align with the agendas of many environmentally concerned groups.

While the lockbox amendment protects public funds designated for transportation from being reallocated to other sectors of the state budget, the public land transfer bill requires lawmakers to provide an open meeting before transferring public land.

The proposed constitutional amendment regarding public land transfers follows a controversial 2011 land swap deal in which the state government swapped 17 state-owned acres overlooking the Connecticut River in Haddam in exchange for 87 wooded acres owned by developers. Environmental groups argued that the state’s lack of transparency was unacceptable.

Activists cite the economic and environmental benefits of keeping these lands under public control. Eric Hammerling, the treasurer of ProteCT Public Lands, an officially registered campaign to pass the land swap amendment, stressed the importance of keeping public lands in the hands of Connecticut citizens.

“The future of Connecticut’s public lands should always include a public voice,” Hammerling wrote in a statement. “And the only way to ensure that is in the state constitution. Maine, Massachusetts and New York have done it; Connecticut should too.”

At the moment, there is no officially organized opposition to this amendment.

But while most state government representatives in both houses agree with the intentions of the bill, some have said the bill’s language deserves more scrutiny.

Earlier this year, State Rep. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, warned legislators that, although he supported the intentions of the bill, he believed the amendment’s language could tie the government’s hands.

“There are going to be many, many unintended consequences going forward when in your district you’re going to be hoping to do a development project,” Lopes said on the General Assembly floor in May. “You want to do something, but because of this new language we’re going to need a hearing [before you can begin land development].”

Over 135 Connecticut organizations have voiced support for the amendment, which would protect the swapping of New Haven’s West Rock State Park amongst other state-owned lands.

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu