Some Good News, Some Not So Good News in a Difficult Budget Year
On June 3rd, the CT legislature concluded the 2015 legislative session and passed a biennial budget for FY16 and FY17 by a slim margin in both the House and Senate. After the legislature convened again in a special session in late June, the budget was signed by the Governor. Below is a summary of the 2015 session.
Community Investment Act
Over the 2015 legislative session, WLA worked closely with our partners to defend the Community Investment Act (CIA) from the complete sweep proposed by the Governor. Since 2005, CIA has invested over $133 million in our communities to protect farms, invest in farm businesses, preserve open space and historic buildings and create affordable housing.
Our CIA coalition’s efforts during the 2015 session included numerous meetings with legislators, testimony at key hearings, direct advocacy during our lobby day, and outreach to every major newspaper in the state. Editorials ran in the Hartford Courant, Waterbury Republican-American, and Norwich Bulletin; numerous op-eds and articles ran in the CT Post, Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, and New London Day, among many others. We consistently delivered the message that the Community Investment Act is critical to the quality of life we prize here in CT.
- In the final budget that passed, we were able to cut the CIA sweep in half – meaning that 50% of the CIA funds collected from January 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 will be diverted to the general fund (instead of 100% as was originally proposed). Effectively, this means a 25% cut for the first fiscal year and a 50% cut for the second fiscal year, since the cut begins in the second half of FY16.
- At the 11th hour, however, language was also tucked into the final budget diverting $90,000 from CIA for the Horse Guard Units in Avon and Newtown for each of the next two fiscal years.
- The deficiency bill, which proposed to sweep $15.2 million from CIA to address the budget deficit for the current FY, did not go forward thanks to our coalition’s collective advocacy work.
Agency Budget Highlights:
The final budget bill provided mixed news for the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), and the Council of Environmental Quality – the three agencies whose work is critical to agriculture and conservation efforts in the state.
First the good news:
- Department of Agriculture’s budget saw a minor increase from FY15; and the proposed transfer of Aquaculture Division to DEEP (part of the Appropriations Committee’s budget) was not included in the final budget. Aquaculture will remain at the Dept of Ag.
- The final budget also provides full funding for the Council on Environmental Quality, which had been zeroed out in the Governor’s proposed budget released in February.
- The final budget also restored most of the funding for the Conservation Districts and Soil and Water Councils that had been eliminated in the Governor’s budget.
And now the bad news:
- Some but not all of the cuts to DEEP that were proposed in the Governor’s budget were restored in the final budget. State parks funding, for instance, was slated for a $2 million cut, and it appears that $1.8 million of that cut was restored. However, that $200,000 cut is added to $400,000 in rescissions that will take effect, meaning there will really be a $600,000 cut in each year to state parks funding.
Other Key Bills:
SB 347: WLA worked closely with the Environment Committee co-chairs and a number of partners this session to pass Senate Bill 347. This bill makes an important change to what is known as the “70% rule” – a rule on the books that capped the total state and federal funding on a land conservation project at 70% of the fair market value. This put a huge burden on land trusts and municipalities to come up with 30% match for the purchase price (on top of all their incidental costs).
- Senate Bill 347 raises the cap to 90% for total federal and state funds on a conservation project but also allows the Commissioner of DEEP to waive the cap entirely if any one of a number of conditions are met. This removes a big obstacle that was needlessly hindering some of our land conservation efforts, including those of our partner CT Farmland Trust! The bill was signed by the Governor on June 4th.
SB 346: WLA also supported Senate Bill 346, which passed unanimously in both chambers and was signed by the Governor on June 4th. This bill makes some improvements to the Department’s Farmland Restoration Program, which provides matching grants to restore agricultural land back into production. This bill increases the cost-share to up to 90% of the project’s cost for the restoration of state and municipal agricultural lands, if there is a lease of 5 years or more. The bill also expands the items reimbursable to farmers under the program and makes other technical changes.
Bond Package: The legislature authorized $8 million in bonding over each year of the 2016-17 budget the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition grant program ($16 million total over the biennial budget). The legislature did not include any new authorizations for the Farmland Preservation Program, but the balances in the existing accounts were left intact and will continue to provide ample funding for the program over FY16 and 17.
In closing, WLA is so grateful to all of you who came to the Capitol, wrote emails and called your legislators, wrote op-eds, and supported our calls to action this session. The two words we come away with are these: advocacy matters.