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Colorado transportation funding bill clears Senate, House eyes backup plan

Author: Joey Bunch - March 28, 2018 - Updated: April 5, 2018

transportationThe Colorado legislature is jammed up on a way to pay for transportation, but the forecast for partisan compromise is cloudy before the session ends next Wednesday. (David Zalubowski/AP file photo)

DENVER — The Colorado Senate passed legislation Wednesday to use sales tax money already in the state budget to fix up the state’s clogged, aging transportation system.

After days of debate and amendments, Senate Bill 1 passed 35-0 and moves to the House, where Democrats have an eight-seat majority and a lot of ideas on how transportation money should be divvied up.

In its current form, the legislation would take $250 million a year out of the state budget to repay repay $3.5 billion in bonds for a state system the state highway department says needs $9 billion to catch up with growth. The bill also was amended last week to delay the request to voters until November 2019.

Several ballot initiatives outside the Capitol for this November, however, could skew the equation.

A statewide coalition of chambers of commerce, municipalities, counties and trade associations have filed a handful of ballot proposals. They are expected to eventually settle on one. Voters could be asked to approve as much as 1 cent more on the statewide sales tax, or as little as 0.35 percent to divide up between multi-modal projects along with municipal and county governments.

After the marathon debate on amendments, there was no floor debate on the bill before it passed unanimously Wednesday morning.

Fix Colorado Roads, a coalition of business interests that have been driving transportation funding conversation at the Capitol for years, are pleased with the progress.

“Colorado’s interstates and its regionally significant transportation projects took a huge step forward with today’s unanimous Senate vote,” said Fix Colorado Roads’ Sandra Hagen Solin. “All agreed the challenges along our interstates and state roadways finally need to be meaningfully addressed and funded.”

The Senate deal includes $495 million for next year’s budget that Gov. John Hickenlooper has requested, but transportation proponents also want an ongoing source of state money to pay back the bonds over a 20-year term. How much the legislators commit from the state budget  could affect how much, if any, voters might be asked to approve in new taxes in November.

If Senate Bill 1 fails, Democrats already are touting House Bill 1340 on how to spend the money that governor has asked for in the budget. In that legislation, the $495 million would be divided up with 35 percent for state projects, 25 percent each for county and municipal projects, as well as 15 percent for transit.

“We look forward to getting Senate Bill 1 over here and talking about it,” House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver told reporters Wednesday morning.

She said House Democrats see local funding and transit as priorities “not just to move cars but to move people.”

That bill would go forward, however, only if Senate Republicans and House Democrats fail to work out a compromise on Senate Bill 1 before the session ends on May 9.

Senate Bill 1 is focused mostly on significant statewide projects, such as widening Interstate 25 north of Denver and between Monument and Castle Rock, as well as the Interstate 70 mountain corridor.

House Transportation Committee chairwoman Faith Winter, D-Westminster, feels strongly that local communities and transit should be included in the final deal.

“For us we really want this money to reach as many people and do as much good as possible,” she said. “… We believe that local communities know how they should be getting people around.”

House Republicans said Wednesday they want more than $631 million dollars for roads in Colorado in addition to the $495 billion, a total of $1.1 billion.

“From the start of this session, Republicans’ top priority has been to fund the construction of more lane miles and to improve Colorado’s aging roadways, and our budget amendments are a testament to that commitment to Colorado’s taxpayers,” said House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

“House Republicans combed through this budget and found $631 million dollars’ worth of programs that are less of a priority than safe, effective roads, and I hope my Democrat colleagues will join us in making transportation a true priority in this budget.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.