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Colorado highway politics 101: It’s all about “safe seats” and “swing seats”

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By and large, Colorado state senators and state representatives sitting in “safe” Republican seats in the state legislature in Denver are going to have a tough time voting for the just proposed roads and highways bill (HB-1242).

A “safe” Republican seat is in a legislative district where the voters always elect the Republican candidate, no matter which way the political winds might be blowing in the remainder of the state. In safe seats, the successful candidates for state senator or state representative are essentially “elected” in the party primary rather than in the general election.

The increase in the state sales tax (from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent) in the roads bill is what will pressure most safe-seat Republicans to vote against it. Republicans have made a credo of “no tax increases.”

HB-1242 would likely mean a tax increase of $100 to $125 a year for the average Coloradan, unless he or she was making a large ticket purchase such as a new car.

Voting for a tax rise also is an issue that incumbent safe-seat Republican legislators would not like to see being used against them in future party primary elections – despite that most Coloradans agree that the state’s highways and bridges desperately need repairs and upgrades.

Safe-seat Republicans, coming mostly from rural and outlying city and suburban parts of Colorado, also will not like the provisions for mass transit in the new roads bill. Mass transit mainly benefits cities and close-in suburbs, where express buses and light rail lines make sense, and where more voters are Democrats.

On the other hand, safe-seat Democrats (sitting in seats that always vote Democratic) will have little trouble voting for the statewide roads and highways improvement bill.

Ever since the New Deal of the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt used massive public works projects to increase employment and revive the national economy, Democrats have been partial to large scale government projects financed with tax increases and borrowed money.

The roads bill (with the tax increase) will generate $677 million per year. Of that, $350 million will go toward payments on a $3.5 billion bond issue. The remainder will be divided 70 percent to local governments for road work and 30 percent for mass transit.

A top priority for the $3.5 billion bond issue will be to widen I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock and from north of Denver to Fort Collins.

Caught in the middle on this roads bill are the state legislators who sit in so-called swing seats. These are legislative districts seats where the electorate is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and the seat can shift from one party to the other from election to election.

About one-third of the members of both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives sit in swing seats, which are mainly decided by voters in the general election rather than the primary election.

The legislature is closely divided at the moment between the two political parties. The Democrats control the state House, 37-28, while the Senate has a narrow 18-17 Republican majority. The swing seats thus are occupied by both Democrats and Republicans.

Swing-seat Democrats will feel pressure to join their safe-seat Democratic colleagues and vote for the roads bill (with the tax increase), but they run the risk of having “Hey, you increased taxes” being brought up against them in their next general election.

Swing-seat Republicans also will feel pressure from their safe-seat party colleagues, but in their case safe-seat Republicans will be urging a no vote on the bill because of the tax increase. Swing-seat Republicans, however, run the risk of antagonizing their constituents who want better roads and will not mind paying the necessary taxes.

Safe-seats and swing-seats have been a long standing way for political scientists to analyze state legislative behavior. Over the years, safe-seat Republicans are the most conservative anti-tax members, safe-seat Democrats are the most liberal big-spending members, and the swing seats, occupied by either Democrats or Republicans depending on the political winds, occupy the moderate ground in between the two safe-seat party extremes.

The biggest difference between safe-seat and swing-seat legislators is the difference in the size of the electorates that send them to the state legislature. Studies show that four times as many people vote in general elections as vote in primaries.

That means safe-seat legislators are accountable to smaller numbers of voters, and these are voters that tend to be committed to the more extreme wing of the political party.

The roads and highways bill is a bipartisan bill resulting from a series of compromises between GOP state Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic state House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat. It will doubtless undergo changes as it winds its way through the legislature.

The roads bill has a good chance to pass in the House yet will be tougher to pass in the Senate. Conservative interest groups have blasted it while the Colorado Contractors Association is predictably in favor of it.

Will swing-seat Republicans join with swing-seat and safe-seat Democrats in supporting this roads bill, tax increase and all? We think that is the most likely, perhaps the only, path to final adoption. Governor Hickenlooper and Colorado business leaders will have to lobby hard for this measure to get it out of the legislature.

But that’s just part of the struggle. Because of TABOR, the roads bill must be approved by the voters in the November elections this fall. And that will require even more bipartisan public and private leadership if Coloradans want upgraded highways and transit systems.

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Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College. They are coauthors of “Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State.”

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