Bill clears hur­dle in the House

Long, spir­ited de­bate on mea­sure to fix Colorado’s roads

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Brian Ea­son

At a day-long trans­porta­tion hear­ing at the state­house, law­mak­ers heard two things loud and clear: Coloradans care a lot about their roads, and they have a lot of opin­ions on how to pay for them.

Nearly 80 peo­ple signed up to tes­tify be­fore the House Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day for the first hear­ing on House Bill 1242, the ma­jor trans­porta­tion fund­ing bill ne­go­ti­ated by House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Se­nate Pres­i­dent Kevin Gran­tham.

The seven-hour de­bate stretched late into the night, with law­mak­ers adopt­ing a slew of changes to the bill be­fore pass­ing it out of com­mit­tee along party lines. The eight Democrats voted for it, while five Repub­li­cans voted against it, even af­ter se­cur­ing a key con­ces­sion — the elim­i­na­tion of ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion late fees un­der the state’s FASTER law.

As a whole, the dis­cus­sion un­der­scored some­thing that Duran and Gran­tham made clear when they first an­nounced the com­pro­mise this month: The bill as in­tro­duced was just a start­ing point.

The bill would send vot­ers a re­ferred mea­sure to in­crease the statewide sales tax to 3.52 per­cent from 2.9 per­cent, to gen­er­ate an es­ti­mated $702 mil­lion a year. Most of that money would help cover a $3.5 bil­lion bond pack­age, whose pro­ceeds would be split be­tween state and lo­cal projects, to in­clude roads and other forms of trans­porta­tion, such as mass tran­sit.

Some of the money raised would be off­set by cuts to ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion fees, and an ad­di­tional $50 mil­lion would come from ex­ist­ing state rev­enue.

Law­mak­ers heard from res­i­dents, lob­by­ists, busi­ness groups, ac­tivists and an ar­ray of lo­cal of­fi­cials from across the state who stressed how im­por­tant it was for Colorado to be­gin to ad­dress an es­ti­mated $9 bil­lion of needed projects. The crowd was so large at the start that it spilled into two over­flow rooms and out into the hall­ways of the Capi­tol.

“We are in a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion in our state as far as in­fras­truc­ture goes,” said Sal Pace, a Pue­blo County com­mis­sioner.

Al­though there was wide­spread agree­ment on the need, there was some dis­agree­ment that the Duran-Gran­tham bill rep­re­sented the per­fect road to get there. Some sug­gested us­ing other rev­enue sources, such as in­come taxes, that would have less of an im­pact on the poor than sales taxes do. Oth­ers rec­om­mended changes to how the money is spent.

No­tably ab­sent from the hear­ing was much in the way of or­ga­nized op­po­si­tion. Con­ser­va­tive groups such as Amer­i­cans For Pros­per­ity have urged Repub­li­can law­mak­ers to re­ject the com­pro­mise and pay for roads by cut­ting spend­ing else­where in the state bud­get. Be­cause the mea­sure is ex­pected to pass the Demo­crat-con­trolled House, many of the con­ser­va­tives who op­pose the tax hike may be wait­ing un­til the bill moves to the GOP-led Se­nate.

One of the most con­sis­tent points of dis­agree­ment was the for­mula that de­ter­mined how the money would be spent. The pro­pos- al would de­vote $350 mil­lion a year to­ward pay­ments on the bond pack­age. The re­main­ing fund­ing would be split, with 70 per­cent go­ing to lo­cal gov­ern­ments for roads and 30 per­cent ear­marked for al­ter­na­tive modes of trans­porta­tion, such as mass tran­sit.

Lead­ing up to the hear­ing, the com­pro­mise got off to a rocky de­but, with top Repub­li­can lead­ers com­ing out in op­po­si­tion to the deal and con­ser­va­tives in the House and Se­nate of­fer­ing al­ter­na­tive bills that would avoid a tax hike.

Then on Mon­day, Fix Colorado Roads, one of the state’s lead­ing trans­porta­tion ad­vo­cates, is­sued a state­ment ap­plaud­ing the mea­sure’s in­tro­duc­tion. But, it said, “the pro­posal falls short in sev­eral key ar­eas.”

One com­plaint: The group, which rep­re­sents a coali­tion of Colorado busi­ness groups, said too much of the money was go­ing to­ward lo­cal projects in­stead of ma­jor state thor­ough­fares. And, un­like the lo­cal fund­ing, the por­tion set aside for CDOT wouldn’t grow over time as sales tax rev­enues in­crease.

But lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said that money needs to be ear­marked for lo­cal projects, be­cause it comes from a rev­enue stream — the sales tax — that lo­cal gov­ern­ments rely on to pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices.

Other lo­cal lead­ers im­plored law­mak­ers — in par­tic­u­lar, the Repub­li­can ones — to ig­nore pres­sure from con­ser­va­tive groups that op­pose putting a tax in­crease on the bal­lot.

“You’re hear­ing from peo­ple who don’t want it to go to a vote of the peo­ple,” said Aurora Mayor Marc Wil­liams. “Let (the public) have a vote. Let them have a say.”

The bill moves next to the House Fi­nance Com­mit­tee.

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