CT 2015 legislative session—victories and unfinished business!

2015-02-04 10.49.13As Connecticut’s legislative session ended at midnight Wednesday, hundreds of bills including some of our priorities fell victim to the clock and lengthy budget negotiations. Despite this, we saw victories for the environment including a Blue Plan for Long Island Sound, transportation funding, and the defeat of a number of bad bills.

And the story isn’t quite done yet. The House and Senate agreed to reconvene in a special session—date to be determined—to complete work on critical budget and bonding legislation. We expect to see important environmental funding and other bills passed then, so stay tuned for opportunities to remind your legislators that you’re counting on them to look out for our land, air, water, and wildlife.

Going into the session in January, our priorities included:

  • Removing barriers to electric vehicles
  • A mechanism to determine the value of clean energy resources, and to fairly compensate those who contribute clean energy to the grid
  • A Blue Plan for the future of Long Island Sound
  • Steady funding for clean water and pollution reduction
  • A transportation funding lockbox that will keep money raised for transportation projects from being used for other programs
  • Defending against rollbacks of strong environmental laws and stopping impediments to future beneficial environmental laws and regulations

Read on to find out how each of these priorities fared, and what happens next!

Victories: good bills passed and bad ones defeated
Although fraught budget negotiations occupied the last days of the 2015 session, legislators passed several laws that will benefit our communities and the environment. These include a Blue Plan for the future of Long Island Sound, some money for transportation funding, and fisheries reforms—and thankfully, several bad bills that put our natural resources at risk were defeated by legislative champions and citizens who spoke up against them.sts sailboat

We’re thrilled to report the passage of House Bill 6839, the Blue Plan. This legislation, first proposed a decade ago, creates a stakeholder committee to work alongside New York to catalog Long Island Sound’s numerous resources and uses and to plan for an environmentally friendly and economically productive future for the Sound. “Over the last decade we have faced many fights to keep Long Island Sound’s waters open to all and protected from unwise development,” said Leah Lopez Schmalz, program director for CFE/Save the Sound.

“The Blue Plan will protect traditional water uses and empower DEEP to address use conflicts and threats to fragile ecosystems. It will also provide businesses with greater certainty, so they can ensure their applications to use the Sound comply with environmental laws before submitting them. That will improve understanding and efficiencies for the private and public sector alike.”

Also in our waters, this session saw the passage of historic reform of Connecticut’s commercial fishing industry (House Bill 6733). The creation of three new licenses provides the first opportunities for newcomers to enter the industry in over 20 years! We supported this bill for its promotion of small-scale, low-impact fishing as a way to sustainably revitalize our industry.

A bill that would have increased access to clean energy by authorizing shared solar projects was limited to a two-year pilot program after heavy lobbying from electric utilities. Shared solar enables people who cannot put solar panels on their roofs—for example, because they rent or their roofs are too shady—to purchase electricity from a shared solar system. Shared solar has been successful in states around the country, including Massachusetts, and has great potential in Connecticut. “We’ll continue to advocate for clean energy access for the 75-80 percent of Connecticut residents who can’t put solar panels on their roofs, and for abundant clean and renewable energy throughout our state,” said Smyth.

The legislature did adopt some new beneficial solar policies. House Bill 6838 will significantly expand the Connecticut Green Bank’s residential solar investment program, establishing a new goal of 300 megawatts by 2022. This program, which provides incentives for solar deployment while driving down costs, has successfully increased the amount of rooftop solar across the state. Expanding the program is projected to increase private investment in rooftop solar by over $1 billion and save ratepayers between $68-186 million.

In a victory for land preservation, the legislature passed a bill raising the cap on the percentage of federal and state money useable in the purchase of conservation lands. Under the new law, municipalities and non-profits are able to fund 90 percent of the purchase price with federal and state grants, up from the previous cap of 70 percent. That will make local land conservation more affordable and increase the amount of protected open space in our state—a boon to citizens who can enjoy it for recreational use and for the wildlife that call it home.

The legislature also passed transportation funding for bus operations and jobs access programs. Increasing investments in our bus systems will help more people get to work and simultaneously help the state meet its climate goals and increase cleaner transportation options. Studies have found that the most common barrier to holding a job in Connecticut is lack of transportation. The Transportation Employment Independence Program (TEIP) helps workers travel to jobs on mass transit, providing a social service that boosts the whole economy while helping to keep our air clean and cars off the roads.

Efforts by allies this year helped to pass Senate Bill 502, which improves biking safety and infrastructure throughout the state. This bill expands the ability of bicyclists to ride in the center of the lane, which is safer, and requires updated road design standards that consider, when appropriate, bike-friendly designs. This is a good move towards streets that are safe and welcoming for all users!

Every year, legislation is proposed that would weaken existing environmental and health protections. We fight to defeat these bills.

A bill titled “Connecticut First” ironically contained some sections that would have created new hurdles to passing important environmental protection regulations. Provisions in House Bill 7055 would have created an onerous process requiring any regulations—such as those protecting clean water—that go above and beyond federal standards to go through expensive and time-consuming red tape in order to prove that they’re necessary. In many cases, Connecticut agencies choose to pass rules that are more protective than federally-opposed minimums, based on science and local needs. These bad provisions were hidden in an otherwise good bill and were removed after we and our allies brought attention to them, thereby protecting our agencies’ ability to pass good regulations!

Senate Bill 941 would have unnecessarily delayed implementation of certain provisions of a 2013 law that required public notification of certain environmental hazards. The stricter notification requirements, for dangerous substances such as PCBs, heavy metals, petroleum products, and carcinogens, are scheduled to begin in July 2015. This industry-backed bill would have delayed these measures for another year, or even two!

Environmental advocates and countless citizens banded together again this year to protect the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the state’s environmental watchdog. Its tiny budget makes it a bargain for the state, but it’s been a target of elimination for decades. While early in the session it was on the chopping block, the budget that passed funded CEQ.

Still to come: legislation to be addressed in special session
While the special session will be focused primarily on the budget, environmental priorities that require funding will also be on the table.

The Clean Water Fund is the primary mechanism for funding wastewater treatment and sewer projects in Connecticut. “We’re hopeful that the General Assembly and Governor will once again recognize clean water funding as a backbone of the state’s infrastructure in this special legislative session,” said Schmalz. “The planned $373 million of grants and low-interest loans to municipalities over the next two years would help keep raw sewage out of our rivers and Long Island Sound and reduce the excess nitrogen that fuels the Sound’s low-oxygen dead zones.”

Silver Sands: CT Explorer
Silver Sands State Park: CT Explorer

Occasionally, the legislature proposes transferring certain state-owned lands to towns or private parties. This session, a conveyance bill surfaced which, among other things, proposed gifting sections of Silver Sands State Park to the town of Milford to pave over for a parking lot. Other proposed conveyances in the bill would have created easements over state land for mining operations. It was unclear whether DEEP had evaluated the environmental impacts of these easements. The conveyance bill will definitely be addressed during the special session, and we’ll continue fighting against troublesome transfers of state lands.

All session, the environmental community has been tracking the position of Connecticut’s state parks in the budget. The parks system, which is administered by DEEP, could still end up taking cuts in this tough budget year, which could mean less staffing during the busy summer months when thousands of residents and visitors flock to Connecticut’s beaches and parks.

Continuing our advocacy on high-priority policies
With benefits including lower fuel costs, reduced air pollution and climate impacts, and increased energy independence, electric vehicles (EVs) are a win all around. We co-founded the Connecticut Electric Vehicle Coalition this year to promote EVs, and several of our recommendations made it into a big energy “omnibus” bill that passed the Senate but unfortunately failed late in the House.

Senate Bill 570EV Charging would have promoted EV use by requiring utilities to offer time-of-day rates so owners can charge their cars more cheaply at night when electricity demand is low. It also required the utilities and the state to plan for increased EV charging, facilitating a smooth transition as EV use becomes more widespread. S.B. 570, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, would also have ordered the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to study and determine the value that clean energy resources like solar provide to the grid, ratepayers, and the public—the first step to ensuring fair compensation for producers of clean energy.

“Despite the hard work of legislators and advocates, provisions that would have encouraged the growth of electric vehicles and distributed energy resources like solar and fuel cells failed to make it out of the General Assembly this session,” said Shannon Smyth, energy attorney at CFE. “This missed opportunity will delay Connecticut’s efforts to build a comprehensive clean vehicle program, modernize the electric grid, and transition to a clean energy future, but there are still opportunities for the state to act swiftly and decisively to combat climate change by adopting clean energy policies. We look forward to working with Connecticut’s citizens and the state’s leaders to continue advocating for electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy.”

Connecticut’s transportation system, underfunded for decades, would move several steps closer to much-needed improvements with the passage of legislation to create a lockbox for the Special Transportation Fund. If passed, the lockbox would have set aside money for transportation projects from various sources and prevent them from being “raided” for other funds and programs. “Studies nationwide have indicated that citizens are willing to dedicate more money for transportation projects, such as improving our bus and rail systems and investing in safety improvements for roads, if they know that money will be set aside only for transportation,” said Karen Burnaska, coordinator of the Transit for Connecticut coalition. “Governor Malloy has proposed major upgrades to our statewide transit network that are needed to keep Connecticut competitive in the 21st century. But all of these projects, from expanding bus service statewide to updating commuter service on Metro-North and Shoreline East and completing the new Hartford-Springfield Line, require dedicated and reliable funding streams. The lockbox will ensure transportation remains a priority.”

Several measures that would reduce plastics pollution in our state didn’t make it over the finish line. An issue gaining nationwide momentum is the banning of plastic microbeads, like those found in some face scrubs, toothpaste, and hand soap. These tiny beads flow through our pipes and into our waters, where they can absorb pollutants, be eaten by fish, and then move these pollutants up the food chain. Many groups nationally are working on microbeads, and victories have already occurred in Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, and California. Connecticut’s phase-out and ban passed the House unanimously. A bill that would have imposed a small fee on plastic bags (and turned into a ban after a couple of years) didn’t make it out of the Senate, but Environment Committee co-chair Senator Kennedy has already committed to working on it again next year. A proposal to reduce litter by expanding Connecticut’s “bottle bill” also didn’t make it this year.

oysterThere were also several unsuccessful bills aimed at reforming our shellfish industry. Notably, House Bills 5722 and 5720 would have reduced the legal oyster size to 2.5″ for those raised in cages. Allowing growers to harvest at a smaller size would have allowed Connecticut’s already sought-after oysters to enter new markets, and helped small and new oyster companies succeed in riskier environments. Finally, there was a significant legislative push to secure recreational fishing opportunities for generations to come (House Bill 6047). The two-part bill would have established a stand-alone trust fund, separate from the General Fund, to help support our state hatcheries and other recreational fishing activities. It also would have created a 13-member task force to study the long-term sustainability of recreational fishing in Connecticut, and the ecological and fiscal issues affecting the industry. Passed by the House, the recreational fishing bill failed in the Senate.

As you can see, the end to the 2015 legislative session resulted in a few wins, a few losses, and a few “we’ll see what’s next.” Stay tuned for updates from the special session, and how you can help ensure environmental priorities are successful there!

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