Colorado’s legislative leaders today sparred on the question of public trust as lawmakers have floated a plan to hike fees to pay for transportation projects — and dodge the voters in the process.
Colorado Politics reported earlier this week the chairs of transportation panels in both houses of the General Assembly plan to introduce a bill that would largely use fee increases to boost transportation revenues. The plan from Rep. Matt Gray and Sen. Faith Winter, backed by House Speaker Alec Garnett and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg would create a fee on gas purchases, electric vehicle registrations and industries that put vehicles on the roads.
Speaking at a panel hosted by Colorado Politics, 9News and The Denver Gazette, Republican leaders were critical of the move, with Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert equating it to taking “something that really ought to be called a tax and calling it a fee.”
“The taxpayer's bill of rights is in the constitution because the people said they didn't want the legislature raising tax rates,” the Parker Republican said. “That decision gets to be made by the voters in Colorado.”
Holbert said he would vote against both a fee on the gas tax and fees for miles driven by companies like Lyft, DoorDash and FedEx. Both are elements of the plan Gray and Winter described earlier this week.
For House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, the move boils down to a question of trust between the public and lawmakers.
“We need to make sure that we do nothing that breaks that contract of trust with our citizens, because our citizens did just tell us that it's really important for them to have input on fees and taxes,” the Loveland Republican said.
That’s a reference to Proposition 117, a ballot measure voters approved last fall that would require voter approval for fee-funded new state-run business allowed under TABOR. While McKean acknowledged road funding wouldn’t fall into that category, but said hiking fees would seem to many like “the government is not going to do things that we just told them not to do.”
“Even if it's not quite that way, it sounds that way,” he said.
Garnett, D-Denver, countered that the makeup of the House and Senate chambers seemed to indicate voters trusted Democrats more than Republicans.
“What I see is a lot of trust that the people are giving the Democrats to really try to solve some of these big problems that are facing the state of Colorado,” he said. “I honestly think that when it comes to the trust factor that the Democrats actually have quite a bit of trust from the people across the state.”
He also noted Prop 117 didn’t require voter approval for some fee increases and said he didn’t feel obligated to seek it out for some elements of the transportation funding plan.
“There's fees all over the place,” he said. “The future of Colorado is going to be electric vehicles, right? So are we going to go to the voters and say, ‘Should we increase the electric vehicle registration fee by $10?’ No, we're not.’”
Legislative leaders found some common ground on redistricting after reports today that the U.S. Census Bureau may be delayed in providing data to help redraw legislative maps.
“It's unfortunate, it's obviously beyond any of our control, but I think what we can say is that all of us Republicans and Democrats alike are committed to finding a path forward,” said Fenberg, D-Boulder.
Colorado voters in 2018 passed Amendments Y and Z, which among other things allow independent commissions to draw districts for state and federal lawmakers. Those amendments include deadlines that the delay in Census data put the state in danger of missing, though Holbert said there was “a bit of a hail Mary built in.”
Holbert said the state Supreme Court is required to examine the redistricting process to determine if the required process was followed. If the high court stepped in early in the process rather than waiting until the end, he said, “that gives us some hope.”
“If they can answer the question earlier, I think the legislature may look at interrogatory as an opportunity to ask the Supreme Court, ‘What should we do?’ ” he said. “I'm confident that it's going to work and whether the state Supreme Court needs to weigh in earlier or later, I think that we're going to be okay.”
“At the end of the day, whatever we do to move forward, the important thing is that I think we're all committed to honoring the intent of the voters when they passed Y and Z,” he said.
Garnett and Holbert split on party lines on proposals to bring down the costs of prescription medications.
The Denver Democrat said there was likely common ground to be found on price transparency for pharmaceuticals. But he floated the idea of creating a panel to review the prices of the highest-cost drugs.
“There have been states that have looked at creating an affordable prescription drug board to take a look at that very small percentage [of high-cost drugs],” he said. “I think you're going to see the legislature continuing to have conversations this year about how we save people money on healthcare.”
Holbert indicated he was adamantly opposed to such a panel, though. He said while some might appreciate the price controls in the short term, he believed it would have long-term effects on the pharmaceutical industry’s capacity for research and development.
“If there is a board for Colorado that is controlling prices, I don't think it would be a surprise if a drug isn't available in Colorado,” he said. “We've seen people come to Colorado for cannabis-based medicine. I don't think over time, it'll be surprising that people would be leaving Colorado and go to a state where they could access a particular pharmaceutical that they need."