Open space advocates and key Democratic and Republican allies are pushing hard to protect Connecticut’s new system for funding state parks and to win legislative approval for a state constitutional amendment to preserve state lands.
Supporters of the new Passport to the Parks program said Thursday they are worried money from new motor vehicle registration fees that is supposed to go exclusively to state parks could be sucked away by new budget troubles.
“The new Passport to the Parks program is generating funding critical to the upkeep and preservation of the state’s 142 state parks and forests,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forests & Park Association. He noted that the new program has allowed the state to reopen four campgrounds that were closed last year because of budget cutbacks.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed making that passport fund a part of the general state budget. Park advocates are seeking legislation to keep the money in a separate account, arguing that making those funds part of the regular state budget would make it easier for a governor or lawmakers to take the money to help solve state budget deficits.
The fund is financed through a $10 fee on all two-year state motor vehicle registrations. In return, Connecticut vehicle owners would get free access to all state parks. Out-of-state park visitors would continue to pay all parking fees.
“This is a budget decision that makes a great deal of sense,” Sen. Catherine Osten, a Sprague Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said of keeping those park passport funds separate.
Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, warned that Malloy’s administration is “pushing back” in an effort to return those park funds to the general budget.
Attendance at Connecticut state parks is expected to rise by at least 10 percent this year, according to state officials.
A new version of the proposed amendment would require a two-thirds vote by both the House and Senate to dispose of state property under the authority of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or the Department of Agriculture. Property controlled by other agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, could be disposed of by a simple majority vote of the General Assembly.
Ziobron said the amendment would also insure that state park and forest land couldn’t be sold or disposed of by lawmakers without public hearings.
She cited one infamous proposal known as the “Haddam Land Swap” as the kind of case where important state property could have been disposed of “without any public hearing, without any public conversation.”
That proposal called for swapping prime state-owned property overlooking the Connecticut River for a developer’s nondescript forest property. The deal was approved by the General Assembly but was later killed after a huge public outcry.
Hammerling said previous bipartisan efforts in the legislature to pass similar constitutional amendment proposals will “hopefully create some momentum” in this General Assembly.
If the proposal passes by a three-fourths vote in each General Assembly chamber this session, the constitutional amendment could go on this November’s election ballot. If it passes by just a simple majority in one or both chambers, the legislature would need to approve it again next year to get it on the ballot.