A Battle Over Transportation Looms Mid-Session At Colorado Capitol

Mar 13, 2017

Lawmakers are midway through this year’s legislative session and the big issue at the halfway mark is what to do about funding transportation. Democratic and Republican leaders are backing the idea of asking voters this fall if they support a tax increase to address those needs. The issue is poised to dominate the second half of the session.

“If there is going to be a long-term solution to transportation infrastructure it’s going to almost certainly require something that the voters are going to weigh in on,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican. He made that comment late last year, prior to the January start of the session, and has kept the promise, backing House Bill 1142, which would add millions of dollars for transportation needs.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, has also been speaking about that idea for months: “I convened a group of legislators in leadership to start talking about transportation funding specifically.”

The bill asks voters to increase the state sales tax by 0.62 cents for the next 20 years.

“Do I want to pay a little bit more so the government is doing what it should actually be doing?” Grantham said.

If voters go for the idea, there could be nearly $700 million immediately for transportation -- and Colorado could bond against that amount for up to $3.5 billion. The money would go towards priority transportation projects and transit as well making funding available to local governments for transit, roads, trails, and potholes.

First, Grantham has to convince his fellow Republicans to place the measure on the ballot. It won’t be easy. One sticking point is that the measure wouldn’t be revenue neutral in the first year, as many in his party had wanted.

“We strove to get there,” said Grantham. “But if we’re going to actually get into the project list and do something as far as fixing some of these projects, revenue neutral was a difficult place to be, we tried to get some offsets in there to put some money back into the pockets of taxpayers.”

That includes reducing vehicle registration fees and fines that motorists pay. Yet that is still not enough for many in the GOP who oppose tax increases.

The idea is tough “for me, as a conservative from conservative Douglas County, looking for a new equation, finding a way if some want to raise a tax, to repeal, reduce other taxes,” said Senate Majority leader Chris Holbert of Parker.

House Republicans have pledged to aggressively oppose the measure, saying the state needs to reprioritize the budget before asking for more money from voters. 

“You’ve got a collision course between broadly recognized needs, and an ideological fixation with no taxes,” said Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer. “And those things, they divide the parties, and they have done that for a long time.”

Straayer said he’s not surprised some members of the GOP are splitting off. Groups like the Colorado Union of Taxpayers and Americans for Prosperity are opposing the idea.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats worry there’s not enough funding for transit. They also say the tax is regressive. Transportation has become the central theme of this session. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates a $9 billion funding shortfall over the next decade.

“This is something the state needs and I don’t think it should be a partisan issue,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. He said he’s glad a bill has been introduced and that the discussion is no longer  behind the scenes.

More than 400 bills have been introduced so far this session, but passing a balanced budget is the only thing lawmakers are constitutionally required to do.

Hickenlooper hopes lawmakers can also make progress on changes to the construction defects laws that developers say would make it easier to build condos and provide more housing. His said he would likely veto bipartisan legislation to give local communities more control in regulating private pot clubs and allowing home delivery of recreational and medical marijuana.  

“Given the uncertainty in Washington, this is not the time,” he said. “This isn’t the year to be out reaching for trying to carve out new turf and expand markets, and make dramatic statements about marijuana.”

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