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Colorado lawmakers brief the media on a proposal to raise the state sales tax to fund improvements for roads and highways.
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Legislative leaders walk a fine line in proposing a tax increase for roads

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Legislative leaders on Thursday called a transportation funding plan that includes a sales tax increase “courageous” given potential blowback from voters and anti-tax groups.

Senate Republican leadership stands directly in the crosshairs of conservative groups like Americans For Prosperity by backing the proposal.

House Bill 1242 calls for a 0.62 percent sales tax increase on top of the state’s 2.9 percent existing levy in order to generate about $677 million per year for transportation projects. It would take voter approval.

Senate Republicans are already divided, with Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker tweeting on Wednesday night, shortly after the bill was introduced, “I’ll be a ‘No’ vote.”

But Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, is standing strong in the face of opposition. He is under no illusions. Grantham is co-sponsoring the bill with House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.

When asked whether he is prepared for the conservative backlash, Grantham quipped, “No.”

“This is going to be difficult for our side. There’s no secret about that, this is a difficult issue for us,” the president continued.

“There’s things in here that the speaker and I arm-wrestled over. She won, more often that not.”

House Republicans expressed disappointment that they were not brought into conversations.

“A $677 million dollar tax increase is not the solution to Colorado’s problems and I will aggressively oppose the passage of this bill,” said House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

Already the political pressure is on. In addition to tweets from AFP, a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate piled on. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler tweeted, “Giant Pothole: There must be a better way.”

In addition to the sales tax increase, the bill would also reduce state vehicle registration fees.  When drivers register their cars, they would see a reduction of between $10 to $17.

The measure would also allow for $3.5 billion in bonding, in which voters would approve a loan for transportation funding.

If voters approve the 20-year annual tax increase, it would start in 2018.

“It takes courage to do something other than the status quo,” Duran said, speaking to media during the height of morning rush hour traffic. “What we are seeing today … is Republicans and Democrats being willing to have a conversation about issues that the people of Colorado care about.”

The bill would take only a simple majority vote in both chambers of the legislature in order to refer the tax question to voters. If the bill makes it to the Senate floor, it has a good chance of receiving Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature, who has made transportation a top priority.

Projects would be identified through a statewide priorities list established by the Department of Transportation. A list of projects would be made public and an oversight committee would be established.

“The projects that this bill will earmark to fund first are projects that Coloradans had agreed on, and they’re projects that help every corner of the state,” said House Transportation Committee chairwoman Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs.

“This touches every corner of the state, and I think that’s a huge selling point for this,” said Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “People, not just in the Denver metro area, are going to benefit from this.”

But internal polling suggests that a tax increase for transportation  would be hard to sell to voters, as has historically been the case in Colorado.

“We have to make a case to voters,” Duran said. “We have not increased a gas tax since 1991 – I was 11 years old at that time – and since that time the state has grown by 50 percent. We have a case to be made, and I think people are going to think about that case when they’re … waiting to get through traffic.”

Grantham added, “We weren’t going to get a bill dropped that had ideal situations for either side. This is a compromise.”

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