2016 Legislative Session Re-cap

 

2016 Legislative Session Recap

The General Assembly adjourned its 2016 session on Wednesday, May 4 at midnight, but with time running out, decided to defer action on the State Budget, as well as budget implementers and other bills (including the Conveyance Act and the Bond Package) in a Special Session convened May 12. 

Final Budget Adjustments Approved in Special Session

The legislature voted to approve a $19.76 billion budget that reportedly closes a projected $1 billion deficit with $850 million in spending cuts. (SB501)  Here is how our conservation priorities fared:

Land Conservation Budget Items

Funding for State Conservation Programs

Our 2016 Priority:  Ensure consistent and increased funding for state land conservation programs (Open Space & Watershed Land Acquisition Program [OSWA], Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program [RNHT], and Farmland Preservation Program).   

Final Recap:  The House adjourned on May 13 after passing the Budget and Budget Implementer, but did not take up the bonding package (SB503) until the special session. The final bond package cancels nearly $900 million in general obligation bonds, along with deferring and canceling another $106 million in various categories, including some bonding for land conservation and certain other programs related to environmental quality and protection:

  • Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition (OSWA) – which gives grants through CT DEEP to land trusts, municipalities, and water companies to acquire valuable open space properties – was cut by $7 million.
  • Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust (RNHT) – which acquires land for State Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Management Areas – was cut by $5.75 million.
  • Recreational Trails and Greenways – which gives grants through CT DEEP for trail and greenway projects to municipalities and others – was reduced by $5 million which eliminated all remaining funding for recreational trails in 2017. CFPA, the CT Greenways Council, and others will be working to get this funding restored.
  • Farmland Preservation Program (FPP) – which acquires development rights for farms to keep them in farmland – was cut by $5 million.
Community Investment Act

Our 2016 Priority:  Protect the Community Investment Act which provides funding for state programs for open space, farmland/dairy production, historic preservation and affordable housing.

Final Recap:  The approved Budget includes a sweep of $1M for CIA, which will be divided proportionately among the four sectors.  This means that DEEP’s CIA account will get hit with an additional $250,000 cut.  This cut is on top of the $6M cut taken as part of the Deficit Mitigation Plan in 2015 and the 50% cut implemented as part of last year’s biennium budget.

What does this mean for land conservation?  
While it appears that the existing DEEP CIA funding already committed to pending OSWA projects will not be impacted by this cut and that DEEP will continue to stand by its commitment to offer consistent annual grant rounds, we remain concerned that continuous raids on the CIA will threaten the program’s long term sustainability.  Protecting this vital source of funding will therefore continue to be one of CLCC’s top priority each legislative session.

Council on Environmental Quality

Our 2016 Priority:  Protect the independence and viability of the CEQ, the state’s independent watch-dog agency since 1971.  

Final Recap:  While proposed for elimination in the Governor’s original budget, most funding for CEQ was restored back into the approved Budget. This is good news! 

What does this mean for land conservation?
Safe for the time being, CEQ can continue to monitor environmental progress, assess the efficacy of state environmental laws, policies and programs, and investigate alleged violations of environmental laws.  CEQ provides the public with these services efficiently and effectively and at minimal cost to the state. 

Funding and Staff for the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)
Our 2016 Priority:  Support funding and staff at CT DEEP for managing and acquiring parks, forests, and open space lands.

Final Recap:  The $63.9 million budget for DEEP is down 3.3 percent from the outgoing fiscal year, but is 10.5 percent less than DEEP was slated to receive in the preliminary 2016-17 budget adopted 12 months ago. These cuts would come on top of serious reductions already made to the DEEP budget in the past decade.  The reality is that DEEP will continue to do less, with less -- which will cost all of us in the long term.  

What does this mean for land conservation?  At a minumum, parks will take a big hit.
How this cut will be fully implemented is not clear, but what we do know is that State Parks operations will be significantly affected, including park and campground closures, and reduced services. For details of the impacts from these cuts on state parks see DEEP's press release HERE.  

Moreover, as part of the budget agreement, responsibility for managing the Old State House was transferred to DEEP from the Office of Legislative Management. While already struggling to get by with reduced staff and a shoe-string budget, DEEP has been provided a budget of only $400,000 to undertake this responsibility,when the actual operating cost to manage the Old State House has been reported to be more than $1 million.  Read a CT Mirror article about this surprise transfer of responsibility HERE.

 Other Budget Items of Interest

  • Funding for the CT Council on Soil and Water Conservation and the Conservation Districts – eliminated:  Conservation Districts assist DEEP in identifying and solving problems associated with soil and water conservation and providing technical assistance to local land use boards and landowners.  Districts used $270,000 in state funding last year to leverage over $1,000,000.  The CT Council on Soil and Water Conservation received a $10 million federal grant for Long Island Sound.  The status of those grants in light of these cuts is yet to be determined.
  • Budgets for the Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Experiment Station - were reduced by approximately ~ $400,000 and over $1,000,000, respectively. How these cuts will be implemented is not yet clear.

Public Land Protection

Constitutional Amendment to Better Protect Public Conservation Lands -- Senate Joint Resolution 36 is Approved!  Yes ... some GOOD NEWS!!

Our 2016 Priority:  Pursue a Constitutional Amendment that protects State lands from being conveyed without appropriate review and public input. 

Final Recap:  SJ 36, which passed both chambers on the last day of session, would establish a process that would ensure that the General Assembly would not be able to require state agencies to sell, transfer, or otherwise dispose of state-owned public lands without the following basic safeguards:  (1) A public hearing;  (2) A separate bill focused on a single proposed conveyance required by the General Assembly; and (3) 2/3rds vote by each chamber.  SJ 36 received the required ¾ majority vote in the Senate, but only received a simple majority vote in the House, so under the rules for constitutional amendments, we must have the same resolution passed by the General Assembly in the 2017 or 2018 session in order to get on the ballot for November, 2018.  The passage of S.J. 36 was a BIG victory and a critical step forward to getting a Constitutional Amendment to better protect our public lands.  We look forward to working with our conservation partners, legislators, and YOU to get the bill passed and on the ballot for a vote by Connecticut citizens.

If your Senators and/or Representatives were supportive of SJ 36, please send them an email to thank them for their support.  Special thanks are especially due to Senator Kevin Witkos and Rep. Roberta Willis for their work in bringing the bill to a vote in their respective chambers.  The roll call for the Senate vote is HERE and for the House is HERE.

Status of Other Bills of Interest 

View CLCC's 2016 Testimony on these and other bills HERE

SB504 (formerly HB 5619) - - The 2016 Conveyance Act (the annual bill that allows the General Assembly to transfer public lands to towns and private parties) was voted on during the Special Session.  Changes to the original bill added during the Special Session include Section 11 which renews a 30 year lease between the town of Ridgefield  and DEEP, allowing the town to use 2+ acres of CT DEEP land for athletic fields and to  install lights on that land for consideration of $1/year.   Because this section was added in the special session, there was no opportunity for a public hearing or to provide any public input on the proposal – further underscoring the need to pass SJ36.  See discussion above. 

RB81 –  An Act to designate a portion of the Housatonic River as wild and scenic for purposes of designation and preservation under Section 2(a)(ii) of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed both chambers and moves to the Governor's desk for his signature.  

HB5383 – An Act to expand and enhance the FarmLink program and provide the Department of Agriculture more flexibility to fund additional technical assistance connect farmland owners, including land trusts with farmland seekers, passed both chambers and moves to the Governor's desk for his signature.

SB386 –   The Park Sustainability Bill under which CT DEEP must report to the Legislature on potential revenue-raising opportunities from 1) a per-person admission fee at all state parks, and 2) funds raised from state park concessions, services, and amenities, passed both chambers and moves to the Governor's desk for his signature. 

SB300 – CLCC opposed this bill which would have enabled a land deal between the City of New Britain and Tilcon Gravel and Mining Co. on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent for the protection of drinking water watershed lands.  The bill was passed with amendments that would minimize potential adverse impacts to such lands, including a mandate for an independent study of impacts to water quality and supply and other environmental impacts.  

What's next?

We will continue to assess and monitor how these budget cuts may impact the programs that are critical to your land conservation work, and will provide you with updates on how you may stay involved with state policy throughout the year.  Meanwhile, together we will forge on to conserve, protect and connect with the landscapes that define our communities, build strong economies and enhance our quality of life.  And when you celebrate your community’s conservation success stories, please be sure to invite your legislators -- and all of us at CLCC too!  

Your dedication to land conservation is our inspiration.

With appreciation for all you do -
Amy
Amy Blaymore Paterson, Executive Director

Related links: CLCC's 2016 Conservation Agenda, Call to Action/Land Conservation Lobby Day, Lobby Day Photo Album. 

The Connecticut Land Conservation Council advocates for land conservation, stewardship and funding, and works to ensure the long term strength and viability of the land conservation community.