Session Update: 2015 Biennial Budget Approved ... But We're Not Done Yet!

The General Assembly adjourned its 2015 session on Wednesday, June 3rd at midnight, adopting a new $40.3 billion biennial state budget which is expected to be signed by Governor Malloy.

However, with the last hours of the session dominated by contentious budget negotiations in both the House and the Senate, time ran out and a number of important bills (including the Conveyance Act) and budget implementers will now be taken up in a Special Session (likely to convene later this month).

What's this mean? Bills (good and bad) that didn't make it through the regular session may be tacked on to a budget implementer in the special session. Budget items may be renegotiated. Simply put, other than bills that were approved and ready to be signed by the Governor, there is no certainty on any action taken by the General Assembly in the regular session.

With that caveat - here's our update on where things stand for our 2015 Conservation Agenda legislative and funding priorities, starting with some really good news:

Two CLCC Priority Bills Passed During Regular Session

SB347 (PA 15-23) - changes the cap on combined federal and state funding for projects under DEEP's Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program (OSWA) from 70% to 90%, with additional language providing the DEEP Commissioner with discretion to waive the cap entirely under certain delineated conditions. This legislation scores a big win for land trusts and towns by reducing, and potentially eliminating, the often deal-breaking amount of match funding required to close a conservation project.
SB1105 Section 30 - amends the general statutes to include language clarifying that the exemption from claims of adverse possession also extends to lands protected by conservation easements held by land trusts. 

Additional Good Bills that Passed

CLCC also submitted testimony in support of the following bills that passed: 

  • SB 1061 (P.A. 15-106) - State Parks Sustainability Bill (provides some measures to help increase revenues for State Parks)
  • SB1062 - Recreational Trails Bill (provides up to $2 million in previously authorized bonds for bikeways, walkways, greenways and trails)
  • SB 186 (P.A. 15-100) - ATV Bill (eliminates the requirement that a first violation of a local ordinance governing dirt bike or ATV use must be a warning)

CLCC's 2015 writtten testimony may be viewed HERE.

Better News for the Community Investment Act

Thanks to your steadfast advocacy throughout the session, the cut to the Community Investment Act (CIA) - which provides a consistent stream of funding for critical programs for open space conservation, farmland/dairy support, historic preservation and affordable housing - was partially restored.

  • Biennial Budget Cut Reduced: Fifty percent (50%) of the CIA funds collected from January 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 will be diverted to the general fund, rather than 100% as was originally proposed by the Governor's budget. (Budget Bill section 93 line 2777)
  • Last minute diversion: Language added into the final budget in the wanng hours of the session diverts $90,000 from CIA for the Horse Guard Units in Avon and Newtown for each of the next two fiscal years.  (Budget Bill Section 218 line 8538)
  • Current funds untouched so far:  The deficiency bill, which proposed a sweep of $15.2 million from CIA (including $10 million from open space) to address the budget deficit for the current fiscal year, did not go forward in the regular session. We won't know for sure whether these funds are safe until the budget implementer bills are passed in the Special Session. 

Please take a moment to thank your State Legislators, Environment Committee Leadership (referenced above) and other lawmakers you contacted throughout the session in support of the CIA and ask them to urge members of the House and Senate leadership to NOT approve any further cuts to the CIA.

People's State Forest, Photo Credit: DEEP

State Parks, CEQ, Conservation Districts

State Parks Budget Takes a Hit: the budget restores all but $200,000 of the $2 million cut by the Governor's budget in each of the next two years; but when added to the $400,000 in rescissions that will take effect, State Parks will take a total hit of $600,000.

Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Safe:  The budget restores funding for staff and keeps the agency at DEEP.

Conservation Districts and Soil and Water Councils:  The budget restores most of their current budget.

The Conveyance Act

The annual Conveyance Act allows the General Assembly to transfer -- by swap, sale or just plain giveaway -- public lands to towns and private parties.  CLCC and our partners in the State Lands Working Group will continue to work with legislators to reform the Conveyance Act process (and many thanks to Representative Roberta Willis  for attempting to address some of these issues through a bill that unfortunately did not make it out of committee). 

  • During the regular session, thanks to your advocacy efforts, Sections 3 (involving Silver Sands State Park to the City of Milford for parking), 13 & 14 (involving access roads across parts of Quinebaug Wildlife Management area in eastern CT for gravel and sand extraction) were removed from the 2015 Conveyance Act.
  • At the end of the session, there were efforts to include Sections 13 &14 in various budget implementer bills. We will be watching both the Conveyance Act and the budget implementer bills closely for proposals to restore these sections in the upcoming Special Session. Stay tuned for updates and alerts. Meanwhile, please contact your State Legislators and ask that they share your concerns with House and Senate leadership.

Sheep Farm, Groton - OSWA funded project, Photo Credit: Groton Open Space Association

Open Space, Farmland & Recreation Bonding

We will continue to monitor and work to restore certain cuts to the bond package, which will also be taken up in Special Session.  The package proposed by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee that will likely be considered in Special Session includes:

  • Authorization for $8 million for the the OSWA program for each of the next two fiscal years (Governor's Biennial Budget proposed $10 million for FY16 and FY17)
  • Elimination of funding for the Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Fund (DEEP's source of funding for acquisition of land for conservation and recreation) for each of the next two fiscal years (Governor's Biennial Budget proposed $10 million for FY16 and FY17)
  • Elimination of $10 million for the Department of Agriculture's Farmland Preservation Program (PDR program), for each of the next two fiscal year (Governor's Biennial Budget proposed $10 million for FY16 and FY17)
  • Authorization of $5 million in bonding for a Bikeway, Recreational Trails and Greenway Program for each of the next two fiscal years (to be used primarily for grants).

We're Not Done Yet!

Amidst all of this uncertainty, there is at least one thing that is for sure: We will continue to ensure that your voices are heard loud and clear in Hartford, and together we can and will make a difference for conservation. Thank you for your tireless and unwavering support now and always.

 

 

 

 

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