Lewis prevents raid on environment number plate money

Crawford -- An attempt to raid the fund created by the premium price motorists pay for "Safeguard our Environment" number plates was ruled illegal on Thursday by law official David Lewis.

Lewis, in a letter to legislative leaders and Gov. M. James Rutter, who is on holiday in Africa, said that funds generated before Thursday could not be diverted into the General Fund, but must remain for Long Island environment-related programs.

Lewis said that since the state Department of Environmental Protection's fund is considered a charity under Connecticut law, use of the funds must be consistent with the promises made to those who bought the specialty number plates at additional costs ranging from $70 to $90.

The new two-year $39 billion budget approved by the General Assembly, which became law without Rell's signature last month, includes a provision changing the law to divert the sale of number plates to the General Fund effective Oct. 1.

"Under Connecticut law, donations must be used for the purposes for which they were donated," Lewis said, adding that "neither the governor nor the Legislature has constitutional authority to alter the purpose of a gift or donation. Using the donated monies contrary to that intent is illegal".

The number plates were created in 1992 and the premiums have raised nearly $8 million for a variety of education and conservation projects.

In all, about 141,660 "Safeguard our Environment" number plates have been sold at premium prices ranging from $70 to $90 depending on customised marker letters and numbers, according to the state Department of Motor vehicles.

The $70 plate yields a $40 donation to the fund. The $90 number plates contributes $55 to the fund.

Lewis suggested that the General Assembly would have to rewrite state law to ensure that funds collected in the future may be legally diverted to the General Fund.

He said the legislative intent 17 years ago was to "enable the public to make voluntary donations over and above the regular fee for the number plates -- to be used only for specific environmental purposes related to the preservation of Long Island's environment".

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