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Colorado House and Senate leaders continue to duel over transportation solution

Author: Marianne Goodland - January 22, 2018 - Updated: January 22, 2018

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Colorado transportationAre we backsliding in our quest for more efficient vehicles? (Photo courtesy Creative Commons)

The debate over transportation at the Colorado state Capitol this week has all the feel of an “I was here first!” argument.

Leaders of the Colorado House and Senate spoke Monday about their views on transportation, with both claiming it’s their top priority.

But on how to get there, they still appear to be miles apart.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City continued to advocate for the Senate’s top priority bill, Senate Bill 1, which would take $300 million from existing state revenues and bond, with voter approval, to cover about $3.5 billion of the state’s top tier of transportation projects. It’s far short of the $9 billion on the Department of Transportation’s initial wishlist, nor will it touch the $25 billion CDOT estimates the state will have to spend in the next 20 years or so.

The measure is up for its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Grantham claimed that for Democrats, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, transportation is actually at the bottom of their priority list. The $148.2 million Hickenlooper asked for in December, part of a revised budget proposal for 2018-19, was actually the last of the money from an unexpected revenue surplus, which could top $1 billion, Grantham said. That’s the result of extra dollars left over from the 2017-18 budget and money coming into the state through increased individual income taxes, the result of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Senate Republicans advocate that $300 million from that $1 billion surplus go to roads and highways, and another $340 million to $350 million refunded to taxpayers through a measure sponsored by Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. The rest, around $350 million, could repay some of the dollars borrowed by the government to keep the budget balanced without huge cuts. That includes millions of dollars taken from severance tax accounts or the state’s debt to K-12 public education, known as the “negative factor.”

Sonnenberg’s income tax bill, SB 61, would lower the state’s individual and corporate income tax rates by two-tenths of a percent, from 4.63 percent to 4.43 percent. Grantham pointed out in his opening day speech that the bill is in part a response to a refusal by the Governor to implement a 2 percent across-the-board-cut in spending for most state agencies, excluding education and transportation. One provision out of last year’s rural Colorado bill, SB 17-267, required state agencies to submit budgets with those cuts, but the bill didn’t mandate that the governor or his budget team implement those cuts. Two weeks ago, House Republicans submitted an open records request to the governor to demand the budget submissions. The two sides are still talking but indications are that the governor’s office believes those submissions fall under “work product,” an exclusion in the state’s open records law.

“If [transportation] were a priority” for the governor, Grantham said, the $300 million would already be available for transportation. What the governor promised — the $148.2 million — is all that’s left after he spent it elsewhere, Grantham said.

“We can make better choices …. Senate Bill 1 will change the face of Colorado.”

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver insisted that transportation is also a priority for her caucus, but Senate Bill 1 is not the answer.

“I’m not convinced Senate Bill 1 is the right policy,” she told reporters Monday. Her opposition is based on concerns that setting aside $300 million from the state budget every year will “mortgage the state’s future.”

That turned out to be the case with the Denver T-Rex project, started in 2000 and completed in 2006, at a cost of $1.67 billion. At the time, it was the most expensive highway project in Colorado history.

Although work on the project concluded in 2006, the state made bond payments of $167 million per year through 2016, payments that had to be made despite two recessions and millions of dollars in cuts in other areas of state government, such as education (currently $828 million) and severance tax revenues ($322 million). That the mortgage that Duran and other Democrats fear.

Duran still holds out hope for a ballot measure forged by the stakeholders from last year’s failed transportation measure. “All options are on the table,” she said.

But it appears Senate Bill 1 isn’t one of them.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.