As I write, Gov. John Hickenlooper is contemplating whether to call the Legislature into special session in order to pass a comprehensive transportation bill. He should do it, and give the Legislature a chance to resuscitate the transportation proposal that so narrowly failed during the regular session.
Almost everyone agrees that we need to repair and improve Colorado’s transportation infrastructure. Consensus breaks down, however, as soon as you ask, “What improvements shall we make?” and “How shall we pay for all this?” To arrive at a set of fair, acceptable answers to those questions, legislators of both parties and the governor negotiated throughout the 2017 session. The result of those discussions was House Bill 1242, and the plan was to put the bill’s comprehensive transportation infrastructure proposal before the voters this November so the people of Colorado could decide the matter. House Bill 1242 found bipartisan support in both chambers and survived numerous committees, but it failed by one vote at the near-to-last hurdle, in the Senate Finance Committee on April 25, 2017.
I was bitterly disappointed, but continue to believe that though the bill failed, it need not die. I hope the governor will conclude over the next few days that he should call a special session, use his renowned powers of persuasion in a few choice quarters, and get the House Bill 1242 proposal, or something very like it, before the voters.
The most contentious dispute over 1242 was whether the hefty bills should be financed by new taxes or by diverting existing revenue streams toward infrastructure projects and maintenance. Proponents of new taxes argued that was the honest approach, allowing for the pain to be uncamouflaged and openly discussed. Those advocating for use of existing revenues said the pain did not have to be specified in advance, and would not be severe, if only the government would trim its tendency toward frivolous spending.
The 1242 deal opted for new taxes, fully described, and subject to voter approval; the revenue would be raised by increasing the state sales tax rate. We considered, but rejected, alternatives, like instituting per-mile-traveled vehicle user fees, raising the state income tax rate, or doubling the per-gallon gasoline tax. The amount of the proposed state sales tax increase bobbed around, but finally settled at half a cent, taking the sales tax rate from its current 2.9 percent to 3.4 percent, which was projected to raise about half a billion new dollars per year.
Other salient details of the proposal were to scrap late vehicle registration fees, reduce the road safety surcharge from $23 to $9 and issue up to $3.5 billion in bonds to cover capital projects, using primarily the new sales tax revenue to service the debt.
A group I call “The Asphalts” wanted the lion’s share of the new money to go to roads and bridges, whereas environmentalists wanted it to go in large part to mass transit, bike routes and pedestrian-friendly improvements. Local governments, especially the rurals, wanted most of the money to go to them, but Front Range interstate users wanted more to go to the State Highway Fund. We ultimately settled on 35 percent of the new money going to the State Highway Fund, 50 percent going to counties and municipalities, and 15 percent going to a new “Multimodal Transportation Options Fund” to pay for transit, bikes and pedestrians.
The proposal garnered enthusiastic and well-moneyed support from business groups, labor, liberals and conservatives. Significantly, the president of the Senate, speaker of the House, governor of the state of Colorado, chairs of both transportation committees and a majority of both chambers all supported the bill. But it failed, as I said at the outset, because the “no new taxes” argument persuaded three of the five members of the Senate Finance Committee to vote “no” on that balmy April evening.
This need not stand. The voters should be allowed to have their say. Gov. Hickenlooper should call a special session.