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Gridlocked I-70 in the high country west of Denver. (cdot.gov)
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Backlash at transportation tax proposal spawns a ballot drive of its own

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Hey, how about a ballot issue to upgrade the state’s woefully bottlenecked, backlogged and aging highway network — without raising taxes?

You want it? You got it: The libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver announced it filed a ballot proposal with the state today that would require the General Assembly to issue $2.5 billion in bonds to fund a raft of highway projects statewide — and repay the debt by “reallocating priorities in the state budget.”

No tax hike; no fees; no additional revenue. The entire tab would be paid out of the state budget’s current funding stream. Lawmakers would have to reconfigure — radically — the way they spend the money they have. Like it or not.

Dubbed the “Fix Our Damn Roads” ballot initiative, the pitch is an in-your-face comeback — a serious one, its authors make clear — to the General Assembly’s much-anticipated transportation plan unveiled Wednesday.

House Bill 1242 — a bipartisan proposal that emerged after weeks of on-again-off-again negotiations led by Republican state Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver — would ask voters in November to approve a 0.62 percent statewide sales tax increase. If approved on the ballot — and it first has to make it through the legislature — the proposal would pump about $677 million a year into Colorado’s ailing transportation grid. Some of that revenue, in turn, would repay $3.5 billion in bonding that also would have to be approved by voters under the plan.

The fact that the legislation included the three letters feared and loathed by the political right — T-A-X — not only drew almost immediate push-back from conservative advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity:

…but also sparked a revolt within Republican ranks in the legislature. The House’s minority GOP leadership denounced the compromise legislation, and even Grantham’s own No. 2 in the Republican-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker, announced he was a “no” vote.

Independence and its longtime president and colorful pitch man, Jon Caldara, stepped up to the plate with today’s counter-proposal. In a news release quoting Caldara, Independence mocked the legislature for what it characterized as misplaced budgeting priorities:

“All we’re asking is that the Legislature re-prioritize less than 2 percent of the existing budget to fix our damn roads…Instead they want a massive 21 percent tax increase, with a give-away to transit and a slush-fund to bribe local governments.”

The news release continued:

Since the mid-1990s, Colorado state government has raided the budget for roads in order to help fund new programs that are often far outside of the core responsibilities of state government. From 1999-2014, state inflation-adjusted transportation spending actually fell by 9 percent, while overall inflation-adjusted state spending grew by 38% during that same time.

Independence chided the state for policies it contends illustrate state government misspending:

As just one example, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) spends $57 million on various corporate welfare and cronyist schemes, including film subsidies for Hollywood millionaires and tax credits for wealthy front-range residents buying Teslas.

Reached late Friday afternoon for comment, Caldara said the proposal ought to appeal not only to rank-and-file taxpayers but also, out of sheer pragmatism, to the very business community that had been the driving force behind this week’s legislative compromise. Notably, he said, Independence’s proposal has a far better chance of passing muster with voters.

“According to ColoradoPolitics.com, the proponents of the tax increase are starting at only 40 percent support,” Caldara told us in a text message. “Perhaps the business community should look at this as a better option.”

“Since the legislature refuses to do their jobs by reprioritizing the budget to fix our damn roads, then perhaps the people of Colorado will do it for them,” he said. “Instead of giving millions of dollars to the likes of (Hollywood filmmaker) Quentin Tarantino to make slasher movies and giving millions of dollars to rich white guys to buy Teslas, maybe that money could be used to fix our damn roads.”

As Caldara acknowledged, the Independence proposal first has to go through the state’s lengthy title-setting process before its backers can begin gathering signatures to petition the plan onto the fall ballot.

“But I can guarantee you if the tax increase goes to the ballot, voters will have this choice as well,” Caldara said.

The funds corralled for highways under the Independence plan would be earmarked for a specified list of highway projects that runs pages long and takes up most of the proposal filed with the state today.

Independence’s nickname for its proposal, by the way, is a shot at the Fix Our Roads civic coalition that has been the prime mover behind the legislative compromise. We reached out to Fix Our Roads point person Sandra Hagen Solin for comment but had not heard back as of late Friday afternoon.

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