THE PODIUM: It’s time to make transportation a priority for our tax dollars
Author: John Cooke - December 28, 2017 - Updated: December 28, 2017
In the 20-year period since 1997 spanning three governorships — those of Bill Owens, Bill Ritter and John Hickenlooper — one governor stands out as proposing starvation budgets for Colorado’s state highways and roadways. That governor is John Hickenlooper.
We are talking about each governor’s priorities for spending taxpayer dollars through the General Fund budget, not federal and state gasoline excise tax revenues or monies collected through fees of various kinds. Yes, there is money for transportation projects from many sources in the state budget total, but not money that comes from the state’s taxpayers. Taxpayer money goes for everything else, from education to health care, from law enforcement to parks and forest management, but not for roads and highways.
The governor’s Nov. 1, 2017 budget message summarizes the situation nicely:
“Transportation needs in Colorado are largely funded by motor fuel taxes (both state and federal) and registration fees. Only a small portion of the Department of Transportation’s budget, about 2.2 percent, is legislatively appropriated.”
In other words, the people’s elected representatives have delegated the management and the funding of our state highway system to others — the federal government and Department of Transportation bureaucrats. Transportation funding has effectively been moved “off budget,” allowing lawmakers to walk away from accountability. That lack of accountability is a huge part of our $9 billion transportation project backlog.
It has not always been this way. Over the eight years that Gov. Owens sent budget proposals to the state legislature, transportation projects received an average of $175 million annually in General Fund dollars. The four state budgets signed into law by Gov. Ritter saw average annual General Fund appropriations of $123 million.
So, what happened to General Fund support for transportation under Gov. Hickenlooper? The seven budgets adopted under Hickenlooper have awarded roads and bridges an average of only $51.2 million annually in General Fund dollars. The last budget signed by Gov. Owens (FY2007) appropriated $540.1 million in General Fund dollars to transportation projects.
Yet, Hickenlooper’s 2017-2018 budget has only $79.5 million in General Fund dollars for roads and bridges (the final appropriation under SB228). That is an astonishing gap of over $460 million in missing General Fund commitments to state highways and roadways.
Those annual funding gaps have had a cumulative impact on our transportation system, so there should be no mystery why the Colorado Department of Transportation has a $9 billion backlog of transportation projects. Roads and bridges have been starved of adequate funding for over a decade.
From 1997 to 2009, before John Hickenlooper took office, each annual budget saw an average of $183.3 million in General Fund dollars going to transportation projects. But in Hickenlooper’s seven budgets from FY 2012 to FY 2018, the average annual General Fund appropriation has been only $39.8 million, leaving a cumulative deficit of 1.8 billion compared to earlier General Fund budgets. It would be reasonable to call that deficit of $1.8 billion Gov. Hickenlooper’s Transportation Negative Factor.
According to CDOT, we have a $9 billion backlog of transportation projects, and that backlog is growing. Every poll and every town hall forum across the state is telling the state’s lawmakers that improving our state highways and roadways is Coloradans’ number one priority.
It is now indisputable that current tax revenues are adequate to restore substantial General Fund support for state transportation projects. On Dec. 20, legislators received the December economic forecast from the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the legislature’s nonpartisan Legislative Council. The Legislative Council forecast shows that General Fund revenues in the 2018-2019 budget will be $747.9 million higher than what we have in the current budget. When you add to that number the $270 million to $340 million windfall in state income tax revenues from the impact of the federal tax reform legislation signed into law this week, Colorado lawmakers will have an additional $1.02 to $1.05 BILLION in NEW General Fund revenues next year. Holy cow, Batman!
Isn’t it time for Colorado’s General Assembly and Colorado’s governor to prioritize state highway and road improvements in the allocation of existing taxpayer dollars? The numbers send a clear message: Colorado doesn’t need a tax increase, we need only reallocate existing revenues to better reflect Coloradans’ top priority — improving our state highways and roadways.
Read The Podium weekly; it’s where prominent players in Colorado politics address the big issues of the day.