The biggest concern for the multi-billion-dollar transportation bill working its way through the Colorado legislature might not be Republicans or Democrats. It could be Jon Caldara.
When a tax bur gets under his libertarian saddle, nobody rides harder on public policy issues than the president of the Denver-based Independence Institute.
He and I grabbed lunch this week to talk transportation. He’s mounting a competing ballot question called “Fix Our Damn Roads” to any request legislators put to voters if it includes a tax increase. As it’s written now, House Bill 1242 would ask voters for a new 0.62 percent sales tax, on top of the 2.9 percent the state already takes.
In exchange, the Colorado Department of Transportation could widen Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Road and from Denver to Fort Collins, as well as address traffic jams on the I-70 mountain corridor. The tax would pay for projects across the state, as well as giving local communities a big share to spend as they like, including on transit and bike lanes.
Caldara has the political know-how, the public profile of radio and TV, a bankroll for such things from his think tank’s tax-averse donors and the stubbornness to fight this better than just about anyone. Caldara doesn’t always win but he never quits. He’s like an agitated hornet.
His was one of the loudest voices out there against two ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiatives for schools, Proposition 103 in 2011 and Amendment 66 in 2013. He’s burned a lot of tread down these kinds of roads.
Over Monte Cristo sandwiches, which Caldara described as a doughnut with meat, I asked him why he has a beef with legislators’ road plan.
What don’t you like about House Bill 1242?
CALDARA: One, because it’s not about roads. It’s about everything but roads. It goes 30 percent to transit, which does nothing to alleviate our problems — bike paths and silly crap. And it creates a political slush fund for cities. Not to mention, it’s a nonstarter.
Go ahead, put it on the ballot. It’ll fail and then what are you going to do? Sooner or later you have to address the real problem, and that’s that Colorado does not make a priority out of roads, because we siphon it off for transit.
Why is your ballot initiative better?
CALDARA: What it does is it forces the legislature, to makie one of its core functions, roads, a priority the way it should be, yet it gives them the freedom to figure out how best to do that.
How did we get in this mess?
CALDARA: We got into this mess because politicians are basically dishonest and a creature of expediency, so instead of asking the people for a tax increase for things like the Medicaid expansion, which they knew would fail, they passed it along knowing it would put us over a fiscal cliff, and then they hold up whatever is dear to us to pass a tax increase. The last two times it was our children. Rollie Heath’s Proposition 103 and Amendment 66, both of which we destroyed. And now the polling shows we love our roads more than we love our children, and we’re tired of being stuck in traffic. And now they’re going to hold that up for bait.
Why are Coloradans so fed up with tax requests? They’ve only passed 24 out of 72 statewide in state history.
CALDARA: I think it’s a little bit of the same reason why Trump won. We’re tired of politicians not doing their job and making tough calls and prioritizing core functions. They bend to every constituency that comes up and puts pressure on them, except for the rest of us. Also, Colorado wants to keep its spending and taxing close. We’re not a low-tax state. We’re a high tax state. It’s just that most of those taxes are paid on the local level.
When you say we haven’t raised taxes, are kidding me? We raise taxes all the time. We just don’t raise taxes on the state level. We want to see our funding go to something local.”
Democrats say we can’t adequately fund transportation under TABOR. Why do you think we can?
CALDARA: Of course we can! It’s not an R- or D- question. It is a politician question. And politicians’ lives are easier when more money comes in and they don’t have to anger any constituents. That’s not news.
I think the people of Colorado would rather have better roads than Medicaid expansion. I think they’d rather have better roads than giving our corporate welfare to Quentin Tarantino or buying Teslas for rich white guys. The money is there. You just have to make some tough calls to do it.
And this proposal forces them to do that.