IN RESPONSE | We don't need a tax hike to fix Colorado's highways

In this Jan. 7, 2018, photo, traffic backs up on Interstate 70 in Colorado, a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains The chairman of a committee exploring whether Denver should bid on the 2030 Olympics says buses or giving incentives to truckers to avoid the highway could help keep traffic moving if the city hosted the games. Rob Cohen also says a possible surplus could help pay to improve the highway later. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

With a week left in the legislative session, Colorado House Democrats are poised to introduce a major overhaul to a transportation bill that passed the state Senate unanimously more than a month ago.

The change is significant. Rather than asking for permission to borrow $3.5 billion and repay it with $250 million a year from the state budget, as the Senate agreed to, House Democrats want a pay-as-they-go proposal that doesn’t threaten money for education.

Democrats are concerned that locking in that amount of money to repay bonds each year would mean less money for schools and social services in an economic downturn.

“We felt that Senate Bill 1, as it currently is, is like buying a new house without getting a new job first and saving for it,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Thornton, chair of the House Transportation Committee. “We’re mortgaging our future.

“This (amendment) is a responsible way to show the voters in the state of Colorado and everyone else involved that we care about transportation.”

The Democrats’ amendment would use $495 million already set aside in this year’s budget, then pledge $166 million from the budget for each of the next five years. But lawmakers would not be bound by the agreement.

The state also wouldn’t borrow any money under the proposal.

Sandra Hagen Solin, a government relations strategist at law firm Kutak Rock who leads the statewide business coalition called Fix Our Roads, said the proposal means the state can’t invest in major projects such as widening interstates, which is a priority for those stuck in traffic jams on interstates 25 and 70.

“With growth in the economy this year, we’ve got the necessary funds to have an aggressive strategy for transportation,” she said.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, 60 percent of the money would go to state projects, 15 percent would go to transit and other “multi-modal” projects and the rest would be shared by local governments.

Senate Bill 1 is scheduled to be heard by the House Transportation and Energy Committee Wednesday afternoon.

The bill passed the Senate 35-0 on March 28, after a marathon of debate and amendments, including waiting until November 2019 before asking voters to give the state permission to borrow $3.5 billion for transportation projects.

Separately, a coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is holding private meetings with elected officials, business leaders and trade associations that would benefit from a tax hike to craft a potential ballot question for this November.

New taxes,  however, are a line Senate Republicans aren’t willing to cross, however, said Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, one of SB  1’s sponsors.

He noted that the state budget grew by $1.2 billion this year, making it impractical to convince voters to pay more in taxes instead of asking lawmakers to make a commitment from existing tax revenue.

Cooke said he met with Winter and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, Monday afternoon before the amendment was presented to reporters.

Democrats want a trigger that would ensure schools get money before transportation, which means some years roads might not get anything if there’s not enough tax revenue coming, Cooke said, similar to past legislative attempts that have left roads and bridges falling farther behind.

“The problem with that is that we can’t guarantee next year there won’t be a different priority with a different legislature,” Cooke said, alluding to this being an election year. “That’s why, with the bonding, it is firm and it’s set and we have to pay that $250 million.”

The state highway department estimates Colorado needs $20 billion to catch up and keep up with growth over the next two decades.

The Denver Metro Chamber-led coalition has a handful of potential ballot measures that could ask voters in November to put in as much as 1 cent more in sales taxes statewide to pay for transportation. That could be in addition to anything provided by the legislature.

Miz Cordero, vice president for government affairs for the chamber, said the amendment presented Tuesday does not change the chamber’s plans to seek a tax hike for transportation.

The chamber is waiting to see what the legislature does before deciding how to proceed.

Left-leaning groups also are resistant to locking up money in the state budget to repay bonds.

“A lot of Coloradans are scratching their heads right now, trying to figure out why our booming state is pitting roads against kids,” Scott Wasserman, president of the Denver-based Bell Action Network, said in a statement. “We can’t afford to keep putting education and transportation funding against one another. That kind of false scarcity is beneath us.”

Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute in Denver, said lawmakers need to find a balance.

“The question is not whether we should fund transportation or schools, but rather, how can we do what’s best for both?” she stated.

Two dozen business groups sent a letter to legislative leaders to House and Senate leaders Tuesday. A copy was obtained by Colorado Politics.

Duran told reporters, “I didn’t see any groups advocating for education funding signing that letter.

The letter states:

It is time to solve Colorado’s transportation crisis. For too long, the issue has been avoided or ignored, while our state has seen massive population growth. Due to our growth without action, we are seeing more traffic accidents, more congestion and growing costs to doing business in our state. That’s why we are writing you to urge you to pass Senate Bill 1 – the compromise transportation funding measure that passed the State Senate with a unanimous 35-0 vote.

With such overwhelming support, and such little time left in the legislative session, we believe it’s vital to keep the major areas of agreement in this historic compromise intact.

Critically, SB1 puts nearly a half billion dollars towards roads from this year’s budget surplus, and commits $250 million a year for 20 years from the General Fund to help fund a bond measure to go before voters in 2019. If passed, SB1 would amount to the largest investment in Colorado’s transportation infrastructure in 20 years.

This is an issue that is not just important to the business community or a small sliver of the electorate. The state of our roads and bridges are impacting every last resident of the state. Whether it is long commutes keeping parents away from their children, higher costs to businesses and consumers for goods due to increased congestion, or wear and tear of vehicles eating away at family budgets, this issue touches everyone.

Ask any TV channel, radio station, or newspaper – the number one complaint they hear from their viewers, listeners and readers is about our roads. Voters are paying attention to whether this issue is solved or not.

The legislature should not gavel out of this session without solving this issue. The legislature has an opportunity and a risk here – they can demonstrate that solutions to our most vexing problems are possible, or they can reinforce the cynical view many people increasingly have, watching big problems become overcome by the smallness of our politics. Don’t let this important legislative solution get jammed up in political traffic. It’s time to fix our roads.

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