Hot Sheet

Backlash at transportation tax proposal spawns a ballot drive of its own

Author: Dan Njegomir - March 10, 2017 - Updated: June 27, 2017

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.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is a blogger and opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.


0 comments

  • Robert Chase

    March 10, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    Caldara’s proposal is extreme and doctrinaire, its first target Bustang service along the interstate corridors. Neither it nor HB17-1242 are acceptable; consider that many voters do not blame the General Assembly (GA) for everything (not having seen it close up) and that they are amenable to a modest increase in the tax on gasoline, not raised since 1991 and disproportionately low. A serious alternative to HB17-1242 would not be revenue-neutral and leave the gas tax unchanged. Caldara should have balanced his (appealing yet ludicrous) demand for fiscal discipline of the GA with some new revenue in the form of an increase in the gas tax. Fix our Damn Roads should serve as a warning to the GA to put a rational case to voters for a modest increase in the gas tax to fund a specified list of transportation projects or risk the rigors of Caldara’s drastic remedy.

    Reply

    • Doubleg00d

      March 11, 2017 at 10:39 am

      Caldara is “extreme” and “ludicrous” while tax increase is “modest”, “serious” and “rational”. Sorry Robert, but we think a tax increase is extreme and ludicrous when the financing of much needed road maintenance can sensibly be done with existing revenue. Caldara is right. A resetting of priorities is needed.

      Reply

  • Russell

    March 11, 2017 at 6:52 am

    My problem with a gas tax is that state politicians will find other uses for it and the roads still won’t get fixed. Northern Colorado has been waiting decades for the widening of I-25 and the funding is available but Democrats in the State House won’t spend it. Hickenlooper is a businessman but he’s more a Democrat that doesn’t know how to bargain and make deals to help the tax payer.

    Reply

    • Robert Chase

      March 11, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      Fix Our Damn Roads uses very specific language and commits the General Assembly to funding a specific lists of projects; there is no good reason why the General Assembly should not do the same in drafting a replacement for (the what should already be embarrassing) HB17-1242! Ask voters for permission to raise the gas tax, in stages, to a reasonable extent and commit the money as specifically as possible. Fix Our Damn Roads isn’t the right solution, but it does set an example for the General Assembly to follow if it does want voters to approve raising new revenue! The only question is whether the message will be lost upon the idiots.

      Reply

  • Doubleg00d

    March 11, 2017 at 8:42 am

    I’m with you John Caldara. Plenty of money for roads without new taxes. If we voters have to set spending priorities, we’ll do it.

    Reply

  • Scott Weiser

    March 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    I think Jon Caldera has it right…almost. He’s not strict enough with the legislature and leaves it some wiggle room that can be used to deliberately frustrate the effort.

    Specifically there need to be a provision that mandates that the legislature actually spend the money right away. Telling it to appropriate the money and providing a list of projects is fine, and limiting the use of the money to those projects is fine too, but there needs to be a passage saying that the legislature will begin funding those projects and ordering the DOT to proceed with them “without delay” and using such other language as is needed to prevent them from using legislative shenanigans or procedural delays to interfere with the work to be done.

    If this isn’t in the bill there is the chance that the Democrats will, like the dog-in-the-mangers they are, simply sit on the money and refuse to disburse it to pay for the work in hopes of winning a lawsuit claiming that the public can’t tell the legislature what to do because it violates the “republican form of government.” This is a serious concern and the legislature needs to be given absolutely no reason at all to delay, obfuscate, pettifog, niggle or otherwise fail to get the projects underway.

    Reply

  • Scott Weiser

    March 11, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Robert Chase wrote: “Caldara’s proposal is extreme and doctrinaire, its first target Bustang service along the interstate corridors.”

    Indeed, and rightfully so. Intercity bus service serves a tiny number of people at great cost and doesn’t do a thing to deal with actual transportation problems. If intercity bus service were useful then PRIVATE INDUSTRY would be providing that service. It isn’t, which means that it’s not a profitable enterprise because people aren’t willing to pay what it actually costs to provide such service, which is why the government has to subsidize it.

    Worse, it diverts money needed for highway maintenance and construction to “feel good” projects like HOV lanes and inter-city busses. HOV lanes are one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on the citizens of Colorado ever. We pay millions of dollars to build new lane capacity and then reserve it for the wealthy so they can exceed the speed limit, leaving it mostly empty at the most critical times just so the wealthy can get where they are going faster.

    They need to get in the line just like everybody else and wait their turn. Sharing the pain of traffic is how we get people to vote for fixing our damn roads.

    Reply

    • Robert Chase

      March 11, 2017 at 5:12 pm

      Ideologically-driven claptrap. We could build cost-effective mass-transit and provide people plastic bubble cars to get them to and from terminals — the potential savings in time and money over our present arrangements for moving people from place to place would be enormous. Colorado should take the lead in developing and deploying passive maglev; ultralight, automatically-guided vehicles could move people through our interstate corridors and beyond at twice current speeds for a fraction of the cost. CDOT, of course, trots out estimates for high-speed rail based upon older, much heavier, and far more expensive technology. One thing is certain; we will not build (or, in your world, contract to be built) a system deemed undesirable or impossible, and so long as we hew to such beliefs as that mass transit is bad and that massive private vehicles are good, that only private enterprise should undertake economic intitiative, or that collective economic enterprises are either doomed to failure or inefficiency, all progress will be stymied. I reject many of Caldara’s (and Libertarians’) irrational economic assumptions and soulless, clueless plan for government while acknowledging the merit of their arguments when they bite — the attack on Colorado’s feeble attempts to support alternative transportation is far and away the least appealing, least effective part of Fix Our Damn Roads.

      Reply

      • Doubleg00d

        March 11, 2017 at 6:16 pm

        Ideology driven claptrap flows both ways. Difference is, the Caldara plan drives government efficiency and is a more logical fit for the Colorado lifestyle. While it is doubtful that the tax increase plan will even reach the ballot stage, it will fail like just like most when it is clear that there is no need for new revenue. I encourage Caldara to proceed with the initiative. It is right on target.

        Reply

      • Scott Weiser

        March 12, 2017 at 5:39 pm

        Nonsense Robert. Your implicit “if we build it, they will come” fails to understand or account for actual human behavior. People don’t want “plastic bubble cars,” they want their own cars. and they want to be able to go where they want when they want without having to pay to do so TWICE, which is what public transportation means.

        Take inter-city/cross-country rail (Amtrak). It’s a financial failure and always has been because it does not acknowledge human behavior. I would NEVER take Amtrak to Seattle for example because when I get to Seattle I don’t want to sit in a train station and I don’t want to pay for taxis, Ubers or a rental car to get around Seattle, much less go and visit Mt. St. Helens or anything outside of the urban area.

        I want MY car, which I pay for, with MY luggage and fishing rods, so I can go where I want, when I want, and I can change those plans at a moment’s notice WITHOUT having to pay for somebody else’s car (a rental, Uber or taxi) to do so. I paid good money for my car (or in the past my motorcycle) so that I can use and enjoy it.

        So, for Amtrak what I recommend is the “Channel Tunnel” model where extremely long trains travel cross-country at high speed, but rather than having to kit-up like you’re flying, leaving everything you need behind, you simply drive YOUR car onto the train in Denver, go upstairs to the passenger section, relax, read, watch the scenery, sleep and eat and then get back in YOUR car in Seattle and drive off the train.

        Exactly the same argument agrees to ANY sort of inter-city transport. So long as it’s either cost-neutral or cheaper, and generally faster depending on distance to drive your car onto the train and get hauled from Denver to Santa Fe or Cheyenne people will likely eschew the highway for the comfort of the train.

        If there’s one thing trains are good at it’s hauling huge amounts of cargo at low cost and at a substantial energy savings over truckage or driving. But you have to engage the economies of scale to see any savings, and that means completely redesigning the rail transportation system to accommodate personal vehicle and passengers.

        I just read about a $215 15-day Amtrak pass that allows you to go anywhere Amtrak does…if you don’t mind sleeping sitting up. Imagine being able to buy a ticket from Denver to LA for around a hundred bucks that leaves you in LA with your own car and luggage! That beats 30 hours driving and three hundred bucks in fuel expenses.

        “Alternative transportation” is “alternative” because “alternative” actually means “ideologically driven, largely useless, outrageously expensive and distinctly unpopular transportation.” Ideology is all well and good in the philosophical sphere, but not so much when it comes to public policy. What’s needed is realistic solutions to transportation issues based on actual evidence and human behavior rather than vain attempts to CHANGE human nature by artificially meddling with how people actually choose to travel.

        Reply

        • Robert Chase

          March 14, 2017 at 8:02 am

          Idiot Libertarians keep pushing for people to indulge their worst impulses, no matter how anti-social and self-destructive!

          Reply

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