Bill clears hurdle in the House
Long, spirited debate on measure to fix Colorado’s roads
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.