INSIGHTS: Potholes line road ahead on transportation
Author: Joey Bunch - June 3, 2018 - Updated: June 8, 2018
This isn’t going to end well.
I only need math — addition, subtraction and simple division — to understand the political equation of Colorado’s desperate need to fund transportation and the long odds to do it.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and a collection of allies across the state are asking registered voters to sign petitions to get a measure on the ballot in November seeking approval of a 0.62 percent statewide sales tax.
The needs are huge, and this tax hike won’t begin to fill the hole, contributing a projected $777 million its first full year.
The state highway system alone needs nearly$1 billion a year over the next 20 years to keep up with growth.
Some rural communities could see their budget for roads, bridges, bike lanes and trails double, Catherine Shull, the executive director of the Progressive 15 coalition in northeast Colorado, told me right after the decision was made to ask voters for a tax hike in a closed-door meeting in Denver.
History also isn’t on its side. Statewide tax hikes don’t do well statewide, and local requests tend to pass when voters know exactly where their money is going.
Forty-five percent of this one would go to the Colorado Department of Transportation for future projects, 40 percent to local governments to spend as they wish and 15 percent to some to-be-determined alternative transportation.
An immediate hurdle is fundraising. Five years ago, when Amendment 66 sought hike statewide income taxes for schools, political action committees coughed up more than $9.5 million for the campaign, only to see two-thirds of voters reject it.
And proponents are getting a relatively late start collecting 98,492 signatures by Aug. 6 to qualify. The coalition decided to try the costly ballot measure on May 18, leaving 79 days, counting weekends, to get it done. That means they need to collect an average of 1,246 valid signatures each day, roughly the complete population of Cripple Creek.
Folks on the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope have seen their roads and bridges crumble for years while the Front Range laid down light rail tracks and bike lanes.
Sure, this ballot issue promises towns and counties a windfall without local leaders asking directly for tax hike — which wins a lot of political friends in small places — but good luck convincing local voters that the same people taking their water to fuel Front Range growth won’t also take their asphalt.
I doubt the tax campaign will print “Trust Denver” bumper stickers.
The law says they need 98,492 valid signatures, but in reality they probably need 150,000 to qualify for the ballot.
Here’s why. Jon Caldara and his tax-hating mates with the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver have been collecting signatures since May 1 for a ballot question called Fix Our Damn Roads, which would force the legislature to find the money in the existing state budget and use that money on major projects, not transit and local governments’ wish lists.
If Caldara has not dilly-dallied on signatures — and he’s not known to dilly or dally — he’s afforded his campaign a big advantage.
People who are sick and tired of traffic jams are likely to sign the first petition they’re handed.
Caldara has an easier sales pitch to make: “Do you think the government should spend more to fix traffic jams with the taxes you already pay?” rather than, “Do you think you should pay more every time you buy something?”
Democratic lawmakers, perceived to be allies of the tax hike, brokered legislation last month that muddies the messaging. Senate Bill 1 would ask voters in 2019 to allow the legislature to borrow $2.3 billion for transportation, on top of the $645 million over the next two years lawmakers earmarked last session.
Granted, it’s a bit of an accounting trick. The $122.6 million designated to repay the bonds, if voters allow them next year, is mostly money that’s already in the state transportation budget. Only $50 million a year is new transportation money. How much is $50 million in highway dollars? Not much at all. For instance, the state is trying to find $550 million just to widen westbound Interstate 70 on Floyd Hill west of Denver.
A partial fix using money already in the budget sounds a lot more like what Caldara is selling.
To boot, highways won’t be the only need vying for tax dollars in November. There could be a $1.6 billion tax request to fund schools, as well as a boatload of local tax requests.
If you’re loading your groceries when you’re handed the petition to support transportation, Caldara and his friends are offering a paid-for solution. Democrats say that tapping the constantly growing budget could, perhaps, someday squeeze out funding for schools or social services, if cuts were needed. Cuts happen, but the government rarely spends less.
The chamber is asking for higher taxes. To convince voters to pay more, the arguments have to add up — quickly and simply.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column said the ballot questions needed signatures from all of the state’s Senate districts, but since the tax hike questions are statutory amendments and not constitutional amendments, they are not subject to Amendment 71 requirements passed two years ago.