Colorado lawmakers say bipartisan compromise on transportation funding scheme will be hard sell to voters
March 11, 2017
DENVER — Colorado's top legislative leaders reached a bipartisan compromise on a measure that would ask voters for a state sales tax hike and a bond issue to fund billions of dollars in transportation needs.
But they acknowledged Thursday that it's going to be a hard sell — and not just at the ballot box in November.
Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham said they have spent months negotiating the funding bill that they introduced late Wednesday.
"We've got some tough things in here that both sides are going to be happy with. We've got some tough things in here that both sides are going to sweat over," Grantham said.
“Driving on bad roads in Colorado costs each driver $580 per year in repair and other costs.”
The legislation would ask voters to raise $677 million each year over a 20-year period for state and local roads, bridges and other infrastructure; issue $3.5 billion in bonds for construction; and allocate funds for rail, busing and other local transit needs.
It would raise the state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.5 percent — about 3 1/2 cents on the dollar. It also would lower vehicle registration fees anywhere from $10 to $70, or about $75 million per year. And it would target top-priority projects throughout the state, not just in the Denver metropolitan area.
All told, the measure could generate more than $13 billion to tackle a problem that all sides agree threatens state economic growth: Colorado cannot afford its transportation upkeep, at $1 billion a year, plus a $9 billion backlog in projects.
"This touches every corner of the state, and I think that's a huge selling point. People not just from the Denver metro area are going to benefit from this," said Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a bill co-sponsor with Democratic Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush. They chair their respective chambers' transportation committees.
Republicans long have called for issuing bonds — not taxes — for roads. Democrats long have insisted that without more revenue, there's no money to issue bonds. Colorado, meanwhile, hasn't raised its state gasoline tax that's supposed to pay for roads from 22 cents per gallon since 1991.
Duran and Grantham said they expect plenty of changes as the bill makes its way through the Legislature. If it passes, the measure would require a simple majority by voters in November to take effect.
Already, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said he will vote against any tax hike. In the House, GOP Minority Leader Patrick Neville said his fellow Republicans were left out of discussions on the bill. The small-government group Americans for Prosperity is rallying opposition to any tax hike.
"A $677 million dollar tax increase is not the solution to Colorado's problems, and I will aggressively oppose the passage of this bill," Neville said in a statement Thursday.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said he was optimistic Wednesday about the potential for a consensus bill.
"I'm open to pretty much any way to fund it," he said.
In a report on the nation's infrastructure released Thursday, the Reston, Virginia-based American Society of Chemical Engineers found:
Driving on bad roads in Colorado costs each driver $580 per year in repair and other costs.
A fifth of Colorado's nearly 90,000 miles of public roads are in poor condition.
Nearly 6 percent of Colorado's 8,682 bridges are structurally deficient.
"This deteriorating infrastructure impedes Colorado's ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace," the society said.