A bill that would ask Colorado voters to approve spending billions on transportation went through a budgetary ringer in the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday.
Among 12 amendments, the committee lowered the proposed sales tax from 0.62 percent to 0.50 and offset that with $100 million annually from the existing state budget.
It also locks in 53 percent of the sales tax take annually for the Colorado Department of Transportation, instead of a fixed dollar amount. That way the highway department gets more money as sales tax income grows over the years.
“House Bill 1242 is not a perfect bill,” said Senate Transportation Committee chairman Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, another of the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s not. It’s an evolving piece of legislation.”
The bill passed 3-2, with Sens. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and John Cooke, R-Greeley, in opposition.
If the bill passes the Senate Finance Committee and on the Senate floor, each chamber would appoint members to a conference committee to work out a compromise. Both chambers then would either vote on a compromise or tell the committee to continue negotiating until the session ends at midnight on May 10.
The Democratic majority in the Colorado House two weeks ago passed a bill to ask voters in November for a 0.62 percent sales tax to repay a $3.5 billion loan to jumpstart high-priority projects, such as congestion on interstates 25 and 70. It also would more than double the allocation to local governments across the state to address whatever issues they have, from passing lanes on mountain roads to bike lanes or rural bus service.
The chance of losing
Polls show there is great public support for addressing traffic and repairs, but a tax increase hasn’t polled recently well or fared well in past statewide elections.
Some proponents for the transportation plan are concerned that it’s a losing proposition to ask voters to pay more in taxes without spending money from the state’s existing $28 billion budget.
Fix Colorado Roads, the statewide business coalition that’s been behind doing more on transportation the last few years, was “neutral, with a lean toward opposition” the way the House wrote the bill.
Of the $700 million the tax would raise annually, only about $300 million would go to CDOT for major projects, with much of the rest going to local communities and to transit projects.
David May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce, called the House version “a local government and transit funding bill.”
May said voters will legitimately question why CDOT is getting such a smaller share for major routes and local communities so much.
While the state will provide a list of the projects it intends to invest in for voters to consider, local communities will not, he pointed out.
“It’s a blank check that goes to other uses,” May said.
Others told the committee that without at least 30 percent for transit and other multi-modal projects, well-financed conservation organizations will campaign against it and make it nearly impossible for the statewide tax hike to pass.
Statewide solution, local needs
The influential Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry maintained its support for the bill through its dozen large and small changes.
“We have been a supporter from Day One, but I think these are good amendments and make it a better bill,” said CACI senior vice president Loren Furman, a member of a coalition called Fix It Colorado.
Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said Colorado needs to address its roads as a state. Supporters of House Bill 1242 said that if voters turn it down, cities will finance their own roads and rural communities will lose out an opportunity to address theirs.
“A metro solution will not serve the state’s economy or our future,” Brough said. “Coloradans are currently paying for the price of our roads and failure to invest.”
She said a study last month indicated Colorado commuters lose 10 to 50 hours a year to traffic jams and more than $1,000 annually to car repairs.
Rachel Beck with the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce said the city could stand to gain about $13 million a year from proposed plan. Colorado Springs voters two years ago passed sales tax that brings in about $50 million.
She was concerned residents in cities such as Colorado Springs that have passed such measures would be penalized to pay for other projects by being proactive to begin with.
Beck urged legislators to provide voters a credible list of projects that are fully funded.
“Voters really like to know what they’re investing in,” she said. “They like that accountability.”
Testimony Tuesday showed a lot of factions willing to give a little to get a deal done.
Cathy Noon, the mayor of Centennial, spoke on behalf of the 40-member Metro Mayors Caucus from the metro region and foothills.
She said sales taxes are vital to municipalities, and if they city raises its levy, it will be hard for local leaders to go back to voters for local needs.
Traffic congestion, however, was rated the No. 1 issue for all the groups’ members, Noon said, so they’re willing to risk future increases locally to support a statewide plan.
Besides traffic jams and potholes, Colorado faces other economic losses if it continues to neglect its infrastructure, said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Other Western states are investing in transportation partly because they want Colorado’s tourists and employers, he said.
“I fear that unless we do something here in Colorado, we’re going to fall behind and our system is going to deteriorate,” Bhatt said. “And the companies that have been moving here and the people who have been moving here are going to make different decisions based on the fact our transportation system is beyond its capacity and not serving the needs of Colorado now and in the future.”
Herb Atchison, the mayor of Westminster who also was speaking for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, said the legislators’ work on the bill is critical.
“I don’t see any opportunity for us in the future if we don’t pass (House Bill 1242) this year,” he told the Senate committee.