With the end of the 2021 session somewhere around three weeks away, lawmakers are tackling the most contentious bills still awaiting action. In the Senate, that means bills that will generate hours of debate and dozens upon dozens of amendments.
Friday’s four-hour debate was over Senate Bill 260, the 197-page bill that levies fees to raise billions of dollars for roads, bridges, electric vehicles and charging stations, more regional transportation agencies, multimodal transportation and a study on a Front Range rail system. The bill also cancels a 2021 referred ballot measure that has been delayed three times previously, tied to bonding for highway projects that came out of Senate Bill 18-001.
According to SB 260 co-sponsor Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, the bill provides an update to how the state funds its transportation infrastructure, which she said hasn’t happened since 1991, the last time the state increased the gas tax. Boosting the gas tax won’t solve the problem, Winter explained; cars are more efficient, there are more electric and hybrid vehicles on the road, and the cost of road repairs has skyrocketed.
Winter acknowledged that transportation hasn’t exactly been a high priority for Democrats who prefer to see the state invest in education first.
That said, SB 260 is the result of conversations with hundreds of stakeholders. Not every stakeholder is happy with the end result, she said.
“There’s something in here for everyone to be upset about and something in here for everyone to be excited about,” she said, adding that the state can no longer “kick the can down the road,” with those roads in disrepair, and the impact of those failings have had on the economy and public safety.
The first job, she said, is to repair roads, but the state must also look to the future of multimodal and other transportation choices, as well as the impact of transportation on climate change.
That point was driven home by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder, the bill’s other co-sponsor. In addition to funding transportation projects, the bill also addresses something long ignored when it comes to transportation, he said: the state’s air quality problem.
“This is not a climate bill, it’s a transportation bill,” he insisted, “but you can’t ignore the fact that transportation and climate are interconnected.”
It won’t force people to buy electric cars, he added; it just allows the economy to keep up with where the market is headed.
He also noted the widespread support, including Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver, a Democrat, and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican. SB 260 also has support from the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, numerous chambers of commerce, Colorado Concern and Lyft, among many. Its only listed opposition is Americans for Prosperity and Douglas County, according to the Secretary of State’s lobbyist database.
Fenberg noted that the bill is paid for with fees, which he called a path to sustainable long-term funding.
Those fees include:
- A road usage fee that would ratchet up annually over 10 years to a maximum of 8 cents.
- 3.5 cents per prearranged ride in a zero-emission vehicle and 7.5 cents for every other vehicle.
- 6.9 cents for retail deliveries
- 5.3 cents for each delivery to support a fund to transition government fleets to electric vehicles.
- Raising the $50 registration fee for electric vehicles with an index that makes EVs equitable to what combustion vehicles pay.
- Indexing the current $2 fee per day on vehicle rentals to inflation, exempting car-sharing programs.
- Changing the Statewide Bridge Enterprise to the Statewide Bridge and Tunnel Enterprise, and authorizing its board to impose a fee on diesel and deliveries.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, previewed the arguments Republicans would present during the debate. It’s not a transportation bill, he claimed.
“What this bill is about a significant change from working on the roads and bridges of Colorado to working on global climate justice,” paid for with a regressive tax. This global climate justice effort will be paid for by the families of Colorado who can least afford it, he said.
Lundeen also noted that the Colorado Energy Office has boasted on social media that the bill will put $730 million toward electric vehicle charging stations and $850 million toward transit and bike paths.
“That’s the shift from roads and bridges to global climate justice,” he said.
Lundeen later pointed out that the word “fee” is mentioned 485 times in the bill, and he and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, both warned that a lawsuit over the bill is inevitable.
SB 260 also sets up four enterprises — basically, state-run businesses — each expected to dole out less than $100 million in the first five years, skirting Proposition 117’s requirements that new enterprises with more than $100 million in funding would have to seek voter approval.
Republicans, including Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, pointed out that there are other opportunities to fund transportation, including money from the upcoming American Rescue Plan which will send $3.828 billion dollars to Colorado in the next two years. While the guidelines issued earlier this week by the U.S. Treasury allowed that states could spend some of those dollars on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, Rankin noted another provision on backfilling revenue gives states broad allowances to spend in other areas, and that could include transportation.
He asked that the bill’s start be delayed so that staff would have time to figure out just how much could be put into transportation.
“We clearly have some options” that weren’t there a week ago, he said.
Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, downplayed the claim around stakeholder involvement. Those meetings were merely an effort to tell stakeholders what was in the bill and not to ask for input. The proponents have no interest in what people have to say about the bill, he claimed.
And while Front Range contractors are in support, their Western Slope brethren are not, he said, noting that the bill sets aside only about $1 billion for roads and bridges over a decade, out of the billions it would raise through the fees in that same time period. Everything else goes to the climate programs, he claimed.
Not so, said Winter. Roads and bridges are a priority in the bill, such as $1.28 billion going to the Highway Users Trust Fund, plus another billion dollars for local shares for the HUTF, she said.
More funding goes to a new enterprise that would deal with tunnels, which are also in need of repairs, she said. The total for roads and bridges is more like $3.38 billion, Winter said.
Republicans harkened back to the days of Senate Bill 18-001, which won unanimous approval in the then-Republican-controlled Senate, but the bill drew major work from Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who was then on the JBC. Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Douglas County repeatedly lauded Zenzinger for her work on SB 18-001, which he said would be “wiped out” by SB260. “She knows how to get it done,” Holbert said of Zenzinger.
This isn’t about roads and bridges, Holbert said, “it's mostly about making you pay more for alternative modes of transportation, electric vehicles, public transit” and which puts an “embarrassingly small amount of money into maintaining asphalt and concrete or building new roads and bridges.”
He also warned that the fees being levied on delivery services will mean higher prices for Coloradans, whether it's packages from Amazon, food delivery or rides from Uber or Lyft.
More than a dozen amendments from both sides were introduced during the debate. From Democrats, that resulted in largely technical changes. The only amendment from a Republican adopted by the committee was clarifying the language around electric vehicle charging stations, an amendment from Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.
Amendments from Republicans attempted to swap out the word “fee” for “tax,” pushing the bill’s implementation dates out two years, directing at least 50% of the revenue available from the American Rescue Plan for that purpose to highway projects, and putting a 10-year limit on the enterprises. None succeeded.
Stating that people might mistake the bill for a transportation measure, Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland, suggested changing the title to the “Colorado New Green Deal,” although he meant “Green New Deal.” Fenberg, in asking for a “no” vote, joked he planned to open a dispensary once his days in the legislature are over, calling it the “New Green Deal.”
What didn’t happen: a request for reading the 191-page bill at length, although that’s still an option for the bill’s final vote on Monday.
Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics contributed to this article.