Bal­lot mea­sure on tax hike for roads gets a nod

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Brian Ea­son

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.

GOP ob­jec­tions

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.

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