Election 2018LegislatureNewsTransportation

Heavily amended transportation bill passes House committee

Author: Joey Bunch - May 3, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

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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)

A legislative committee heavily amended a transportation funding bill Thursday morning, setting up a beat-the-clock showdown for perhaps the session’s biggest issue: relieving traffic congestion and addressing long-neglecting roads, bridges and transit.

Senate Bill 1 passed on an 8-7 party-line vote and still must pass the House Finance Committee before reaching full chamber for a vote before the General Assembly ends next Wednesday.

The House Transportation and Energy Committee changed the bill that passed the Senate unanimously on March 28. Before Thursday, the bill sought $250 million a year from the state budget for 20 years to repay $3.5 billion in bonds.

Democrats said those bonds would have to be repaid first, before any new money could be steered into education or other social services.

“We can’t fill our potholes with kids and teachers,” said Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village.

Critics of that argument point out the state budget this year is nearly $29 billion, and that’s $2.1 billion more than last year. Building the money into the budget from growth would only endanger schools if the state budget faced deep cuts in the future. Lawmakers could manage that by growing the budget less, Republicans contend.

Now the bill  relies mostly on money already in the state transportation budget to borrow $2.35 billion for state, local and multi-modal projects across Colorado. The state highway department would get 70 percent of the bond proceeds, and the rest would go to local communities and transit and other alternative transportation, such as bike lanes.

Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, called the amended bill “deficient” for what most Coloradans are concerned about: traffic jams and crumbling state highways.

The Democratic proposal — as well as the Senate one — uses $495 million next year, plus $380 million from last year’s Senate Bill 267 for a total of $795 million this year, then another $125 million next year, before  bonds  could come into play in 2019.

“Congratulations, Colorado voters,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, the House Transportation Committee chair, said in the hearing Thursday.

The bill also was amended Thursday to add a $350 million reserve that would keep money flowing into transportation without tapping schools, or draining off transportation dollars to fund schools.

The bond payments, about $205 million a year, would take about $65 million annually that isn’t already somewhere else in the state budget.

“You’re taking money out of one end of the pool and putting it back in at the other,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Roxborough Park, said Thursday. “You’re not really growing the pot very much.”

Money to repay loans, which would require the approval of voters.

The bill is certain to undergo more changes on the House floor and again during a conference committee to work out a compromise both chambers could vote on in the new few days.

If not, the job of adding money to the state’s transportation system could be left to voters in November. A coalition led by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce could ask for up to a penny more in sales taxes in November.

That move, however, is resisted by some — including leaders in Colorado Springs — who say they have already raised sales taxes locally to support roads and bridges. The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC wants new money focused on major highway projects of regional significance but contends local voters should address local needs.

Any tax hike on the ballot is certain to face strong opposition from anti-tax advocates, as well, led by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver.

Colorado voters have not favored new statewide taxes in the past, and the lift could be heavier this year given the windfall of revenue that swelled the overall stat budget by $2.1 billion this year alone — and a likely ballot question to raise income and property taxes for schools.

The November ballot also could include hikes in property and income taxes to put $1.6 billion in education.

If a sales tax fails, the newly elected legislature could be taking up transportation funding again next year. The failure of Senate Bill 1 would represent the second year in a row that a major piece of transportation legislation failed do to a standoff by the Democratic majority in the House and the Republican majority in the Senate.

Mike Kopp, a former legislator and CEO of Colorado Concern, which represents a broad base of business concerns, remains concerned that the current version does not adequately fund dire transportation needs.

“The progress made yesterday is an important step, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “I was glad to see that the need for bonding is now agreed upon by everyone, as this means that critical projects can begin without delay. However, our roads need more funding than was proposed last night — by the numbers it just doesn’t get us the safety and congestion relief we need today. Deferring substantial action on our multi-billion dollar infrastructure needs will only mean higher costs down the line. This roads bill needs to invest enough to allow us to address the big projects that are impacting everyday life in Colorado.”

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.