DENVER – The Legislature primed itself to fall short of its goals Tuesday when it killed the most comprehensive transportation funding package put forward this session.
House Bill 1242 would have asked taxpayers to approve a sales tax increase from a half cent to 3.4 percent to raise millions of dollars over 20 years to fund transportation, as well as a $3.5 billion bond to get work underway on “shovel ready” projects. It was killed by the Senate Finance Committee on a 3-2 party-line vote.
The funding generated by HB 1242 would have been split, with the Colorado Department of Transportation getting 35 percent, counties and municipalities almost 50 percent, and a Multimodal Transportation Options Fund receiving 15 percent to provide grants for multimodal improvements.
But the tax increase proved to be too much for Republicans on the committee.
The passage of HB 1242 was in doubt last week when Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, called a news conference to talk about the lack of support by Republicans on the finance committee.
Regional advocacy groups, county commissioners and concerned citizens testified both in support and against sending the bill to the Senate floor and to a vote of the people of Colorado.
“Please let the people have an opportunity to make transportation in the state of Colorado work. Please move this forward to the Senate and let’s get this to the people for a vote,” said Tim Mauck, Clear Creek County commissioner.
Supporters pleaded for the bill to move forward and not be killed by political maneuvering, which would ultimately split Colorado into the haves and have nots based on a local government’s ability to raise money to pay for transportation infrastructure. The regional disparity came out during testimony.
Rachel Beck, representative of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, said she favored a statewide solution to the transportation funding issue, but could not support HB 1242.
Colorado Springs has a special sales tax dedicated toward transportation that generates roughly $50 million a year, Beck said. Under the bill, the city would see an estimated $18 million share.
“That’s just not a deal that we can make,” she said.
George Allen, representative of the Douglas County Republican Party, said his organization opposed the bill because it would rather leave it to local governments to deal with their individual needs instead of burdening the rest of the state.
“Funding for local roads should be voted on at the local,” Allen said.
Among those in favor of HB 1242 was Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.
Gillow-Wiles said the measure was important to rural communities that could use the funding to deal with transportation woes.
That is doubly true for Southwest Colorado because of the primary industries of the region, she said. “Our three main economic drivers in Southwest Colorado are oil and gas, agriculture and tourism. All of these depend exceptionally on transportation.”
A concern for members of the committee was the tax increase that could take some areas over 10 percent sales tax.
For Durango, it would have raised sales tax to 8.4 percent – 3.4 percent for the state, 2 percent for La Plata County and 3 percent for the city. For Cortez, the tax would have increased to 7.45 percent – 3.4 percent for the state and 4.05 percent for the city. Montezuma County does not levy a sales tax.
Gillow-Wiles said communities in the Southwest expressed concern over the increase, but believed the need for a transportation solution outweighed it.
With two weeks left in the session, the prospect of a ballot initiative originating from the Legislature looks grim, but more than a dozen have been proposed by business organizations and citizens.
Each of the citizen-introduced measures has a slightly different flavor, with most proposing some form of tax increase, ranging from half a cent to a full cent, and a $3.5 billion bond to get projects underway.
There are also a handful that propose a redistribution of funding within the state’s budget to pay for bonding measures of $3.5 billion without raising taxes.
To achieve that, other departments in the state’s government, such as K-12 and higher education, public health or the Department of Corrections, would have to see cuts.
Included in the revenue neutral solutions is the aptly named “Fix Our Damn Roads,” which has been put forward by Jon Caldera and Mike Krause with the Independence Institute, a right leaning “action tank.”
One bill with a transportation funding provision that remains on the table is Senate Bill 267. Among a laundry list of measures, it includes a $1.35 billion bonding request.
The negotiations on the bill stalled last week over a disagreement on a portion that would make Hospital Provider Fee an enterprise fee, but talks restarted over the weekend, said Sen. Jerry Sonneberg,R-Sterling and sponsor of the bill.
There is time for the bill to be amended to increase the transportation portion, but it would have to include a funding source that both chambers could get behind, Sonneberg said. “It’s still an uphill battle.”