State environmental groups claimed some victories in the 2019 legislative session, though they weren’t as broad as advocates might have hoped. Connecticut has made progress on its many environmental challenges over the years, even as new dangers — or at least dangers that were not previously well-known — continue to arise with regularity. Witness PFAS.
The biggest environmental victory this year might have been what state government didn’t do — unlike two years ago, there was no raid of funds set aside for clean energy projects to plug holes in the regular state budget. Those raids, or sweeps, have become common enough that environmentalists have come to dread the possibility, knowing that whatever initiatives to which the state provides lip service could be out of luck if there are shortfalls somewhere else.
On Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont and state environmental commissioner Katie Dykes touted Connecticut’s record this year of “ending the damaging practice of sweeping the important funds that are contributing to the Connecticut Green Bank and to our award-winning energy efficiency programs across the state of Connecticut,” as Dykes put it.
But the damage has been done, advocates say, pointing to some $145 million in clean energy funds swept aside by the administration of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to close budget deficits. Despite legal challenges, the state has maintained its right to make the transfers even as environmental groups have paid the price in canceled programs and lost jobs.
And though Lamont didn’t make any new raids, he also declined to reimburse previously removed funds from the state’s surplus.
Clean energy is one of the state’s most important initiatives, and it’s especially vital at a time Connecticut is still opening and planning new natural-gas-fired power plants. The funds to ensure that the latest round of such plants is the last of its kind need to be in place to allow the next generation of power generation to take hold.
But beyond that, raids of energy funds hurt the government’s credibility when it comes to other dedicated funds — for instance, for transportation. No matter how many times state officials say any money from tolls would only pay for transportation initiatives, people who have watched the government in action the past few decades know there are always ways around such promises. Even the constitutional amendment mandating a lockbox for transit funds passed last year is not enough to allay people’s fears.
The state balanced this year’s budget, but the underlying problems remain, and the temptation to raid energy or other funds to plug holes is not about to disappear. Only a legitimately growing state economy will provide some breathing room for those projects to exist without the constant fear of a new round of sweeps.
That’s why Lamont’s initial promise of a long-term fix for structural problems in the state budget remains as vital as ever. No matter what good ideas anyone comes up with, the money has to come from somewhere.