NewsTransportation

Denver chamber-led coalition will seek sales tax for roads

Author: Joey Bunch - May 18, 2018 - Updated: May 21, 2018

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transportationA measure that could land on the November ballot would ask for a 0.62-cent sales tax for local and state roads, plus transit. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

A Denver-led coalition hopes to ask voters in November for a 0.62 percent statewide sales tax to pay for transportation.

Members of the coalition made the decision in a closed-door meeting at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Friday morning.

Now the groups supporting the tax must collect 98,492 signatures from registered voters statewide by Aug. 6 to get on the ballot, where it could be joined by unrelated requests to hike property and income taxes for education, as well as local tax requests.

The Secretary of State’s Office approved the coalition to begin collecting ballot signatures Friday afternoon..

A potential competing ballot question, called Fix Our Damn Roads, is already collecting signatures to ask voters to force lawmakers to find money to repay $3.5 billion in bonds for transportation without a tax hike.

Instead, voters could instruct the legislature to use money already in the state budget, which was about $29 billion this year, to pay the bonds over 20 years.

The state highway department has said it has $9 billion in needs over the next decade and $20 billion over the next 20 years.

The anti-new tax effort is led by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver.

“This is terrific!” the think tank’s president, Jon Caldara, said in an email to Colorado Politics Friday. “Now voters this fall will have a clear choice: fix the damn roads without raising taxes, OR a huge tax hike for more trolleys, transit with a slush fund for cities, and whatever’s left over going to roads.”

New taxes, as Caldara notes, would be shared with local governments and alternative transportation projects.

Catherine Shull, the executive director of Progressive 15, the northeast Colorado coalition of government and business leaders, backed the new tax and said Caldara is mistaken about public support for a transportation tax.

She said internal polling last year showed 55 percent to 65 percent support for sales taxes, if they go to roads. Colorado Politics has asked the Denver Metro Chamber to provide the polling, but the chamber refused.

“This is a statewide effort to take care of every corner of the state, and we’re ecstatic,” Shull said.

She said the support comes from people who want to see money go to local governments, which do not expand or maintain interstates.

“In some of our local governments, it will almost double their road-and-bridge budget,” Shull said. “And the money is flexible, so they could use it on safe walks to school. They could use it on transit, or for healthcare transportation needs. They could use it on a bike path for recreation, and they can continue to use it on county roads, city streets and alleyways that have flooding problems.”

Colorado Springs, however, has withheld support so far for the statewide tax hike because city voters there have already raised local taxes to improve transportation and drainage.

In the legislative session that ended last week, lawmakers agreed to put $645 million into transportation during the next two years, then ask voters next year for permission to borrow $2.3 billion, repaid with $122.6 million a year over the next 20 years.

Those in attendance said they considered tax proposals as high as 1 cent on a dollar of retail sales, though a 799-word press release announcing the 0.62 figure was sent while the meeting was still going on.

Colorado Politics spoke with those in the private meeting in the lobby afterward.

Skeptics have questioned whether a sales tax for roads and bridges can pass, given the competition for tax dollars on the ballot this year and Colorado’s history of rejecting statewide taxes.

Sandra Hagen Solin of the lead coalition seeking more funding for transportation, Fix Colorado Roads, said the group would talk about the tax request next week before deciding whether to support it.

Hagen has pushed the legislature hard to dedicate more ongoing revenue to roads and bridges.

“At the end of the day, it’s always been about political viability,” she said. “But this is what’s on the table, and we’ll be assessing it.”

Former Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, a former state legislator and former director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, supported the tax hike proposal over leaving it to the legislature.

He said the state needs an ongoing dedicated source of revenue — in this case, the tax hike — without relying on lawmakers to pony up the payments for bonds every year as they write the budget.

He questioned whether the state would get “a reasonable interest rate” if bonds are backed by the whim of the General Assembly each year.

“Yes, you can pass it and say, ‘Yes, the legislature has to figure out a way to pay for it,’ but they’ve got to pay for it on a year-to-year (basis),” Norton said. “So if they say, ‘OK, we’ll do it on a year-to-year,’ then the bond people have to look at it and say, ‘How much is that interest rate?’ That could easily double the cost of that.”

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.