Ballot measure on tax hike for roads gets a nod
The Colorado House of Representatives on Thursday gave a preliminary nod to a first- of- its- kind ballot measure that would ask voters to raise more than $ 700 million in annual sales taxes to help pay for the state’s ever- growing backlog of transportation projects.
While not unexpected, the measure’s initial approval on a voice vote represented a significant milestone in an effort that top lawmakers identified as their highest priority heading into the 2017 legislative session.
If the measure receives final approval in the House and then clears theRepublicancontrolled Senate — where it faces stiff opposition fromconservatives, despite the support of Senate President Kevin Grantham — it would send voters the first statewide referred sales taxmeasure of its kind since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was adopted in 1992.
But the near- lockstep opposition from House Republicans on Thursday, coupled with the lukewarm reception from key stakeholders who continue to withhold their endorsement, underscores the long road still ahead for those who believe the state needs new money to tackle its transportation needs.
State sales tax in play
Lawmakers drafted more than 100 amendments as House Bill 1242 wound its way through three committees and a floor vote, but the core of the proposal remained largely intact Thursday. The bill seeks to raise the state sales taxes from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent, in order to generate a projected $ 705 million annually beginning in 2018.
Noting that the state gas tax hasn’t increased since 1991, House Transportation Chair Diane Mitsch Bush, D- Steamboat Springs, said the time had come to ask voters if they’re willing to spend more to improve the state’s roads and decrease congestion.
“The voters want to weigh in,” said Mitsch Bush, one of the bill’s sponsors. “I have heard from hundreds of people. We have done surveys and polls. We know that this is a concern.”
But Republicans pushed back against the idea that a tax hike is needed, saying lawmakers had failed the public by not prioritizing roads with the money the state already collects.
“We are going to ask the voters of Colorado to dig a little bit deeper into their pockets and fund something that as a legislative body we should have made a priority all along,” said state Rep. Polly Lawrence, R- Douglas County. “That’s unfortunate to me.”
$ 9 billion in need
The bill would require the Colorado Department of Transportation to pitch in $ 50 million from its own budget to make annual bond payments. And, after a Republican amendment to eliminate late fees fromthe state’s FASTER law, it would also cut $ 101 million a year in vehicle registration fees, up fromthe $ 75million cut that was initially proposed.
After accounting for the cuts, the $ 604 million in new revenue generated would be split into a few buckets. CDOT would keep $ 375million, while the remaining moneywould go to local governments. Of the local money, 70 percent would be earmarked for roads, while the other 30 percent would be set aside for “multi- modal” transportation grants that could be used for things like mass transit, and bike and pedestrian projects.
CDOT has identified $ 9 billion in need for the state’s transportation system, which is grappling with a population boom and limited maintenance dollars. The top priorities are the expansion of Interstate 70 through the mountains and widening of Interstate 25 north and south of Denver.
On Thursday, House Republicans tried repeatedly to change the bill to nix the tax hike, alter CDOT’s bidding process, and cut funding for alternate modes of transportation. But each of the most significant changeswas beaten back by Democratic opposition.
Lawmakers also clashed over a Democratic amendment on toll roads that was ultimately adopted. It bars CDOT from using the proceeds of the sales tax to build toll lanes— unless the project had already received federal approval, and could be shown to decrease congestion, among other criteria. Republicans said they agreed with the ban on toll lanes built with sales tax revenue, but said the exemption undermined the amendment.
“This is a huge loophole,” said Rep. Dan Nordberg, RColorado Springs.
Democrats countered that it didn’t make sense to restrict funds to tolling projects that had already been approved.
While Thursday’s vote was a key milestone for supporters of a transportation ballot measure, passage is still far from certain. The version advancing through theHouse still lacks support from some key stakeholders, including the Fix Colorado Roads coalition, which remains neutral on the bill, in part because it doesn’t devote enough money to major statewide needs.
And supporters’ hopes of putting a unified, bipartisan face on the plan took a blow onThursday. In a procedural move, state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R- Highlands Ranch, introduced an amendment that effectively forced a roll call vote, something that’s typically reserved for final approval.
Only one Republican, Rep. Dan Thurlow, joined the chamber’s 37 Democrats in de facto support of the bill.