Opinion

Rubber will hit the road — without a tax hike — via GOP plan to fund transportation

Authors: Randy Baumgardner, John Cooke - January 17, 2018 - Updated: January 17, 2018

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Randy Baumgardner
Randy Baumgardner

Coloradans and voters across the state agree that Colorado’s roads are in terrible shape and that improving and maintaining our state highways and roads needs to be Priority One for the state’s lawmakers. The mystery is why in the face of this broad, statewide consensus, from Grand Junction to Colorado Springs and Aurora to Alamosa, it is so difficult to get Colorado’s governor and all state lawmakers to prioritize state budget dollars to match the size of the problem.

Unfortunately, this past week, our governor again kicked the can down the road by calling for a tax increase instead of committing enough existing revenue to fix our roads and state highways. Out of a predicted $1 billion in new revenue, the governor is recommending we spend only $148 million on transportation projects. That is simply and woefully inadequate.

Folks, we should insist that our governor and lawmakers be honest in confronting the decade-long dearth of adequate transportation funding. If not now, with a billion dollars in new revenue, then tell us — exactly when will highways and roads be a top priority in our state budget? Without action, there will be an accelerating exodus of Coloradans moving elsewhere as they see the quality of life across the state deteriorating.

On the first day of the legislative session, Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 18-001 to finance $3.5 billion in transportation bonds over 20 years without a tax increase. This will be accomplished by simply transferring to the State Highway Fund 10 percent of the annual revenue from the existing state sales and use tax, which in 2018-2019 would be approximately $350 million. Guaranteeing this funding source helps lock in a predictable revenue stream for long-term planning so we can begin paring down the state’s $9 billion backlog in road improvements.

John Cooke

Eighteen local and regional chambers of commerce along with six statewide business associations — from Steamboat Springs to Greeley and from the Durango to the South Metro Denver Chamber — have now called for “no less than $300 million” in General Fund dollars by way of an “ongoing, multi-year commitment” to support long-term transportation investments. Colorado’s business leaders recognize that the state’s economy and job growth are seriously hampered by our deteriorating transportation infrastructure. They agree it’s time to stop giving transportation the “leftovers” after other programs have been funded.

Most Coloradans will recall that Referendum C was adopted by voters in 2005 based mainly on claims of “critical needs” in three areas — education, health care and transportation. Yet, roads and bridges have received less than one-half of one percent of the additional $18.8 billion appropriated from Referendum C’s “retained revenues.” Since 2005, education programs have received over $4.4 billion from the “retained revenues” allowed under Referendum C, while the Transportation Negative Factor — the missing dollars promised under Referendum C, continued to grow. It’s long past time to start delivering on those 2005 promises.

If not now, with a billion dollars in new revenue, then tell us — exactly when will highways and roads be a top priority in our state budget?

Yes, we will hear complaints that making roads and highways a top priority in the 2018-2019 state budget will mean shortchanging other “unmet needs,” and to be sure, lobbyists are already lining up in the Capitol hallways to pressure lawmakers to spend more in other areas. That’s business as usual. But we should first acknowledge that investment in roads and highways is a core responsibility of government because our transportation system is the lifeline of all economic activity and thus critical to the economic growth and prosperity that undergirds the financial health of all of government.

Does committing at least $350 million annually to financing of transportation bonds mean a reduction in state funding for K-12 education and other important programs? Not at all. There is more than enough new revenue in the 2018-2019 fiscal year to do both: we can respect and make progress on both K-12 education’s “Budget Stabilization Factor” and the unheralded Transportation Negative Factor — the billions in missing highway funds promised but never delivered under Referendum C.

If enacted, this legislation must be approved by the voters in November before it can take effect. Colorado’s constitution requires that voters approve bonding as new debt, and this legislation respects that requirement.

Randy Baumgardner

Randy Baumgardner

Randy Baumgardner, a Republican from Hot Sulphur Springs, represents District 8 in the Colorado Senate. He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.


John Cooke

John Cooke

John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, is a former Weld County sheriff who now represents Senate District 13 in the Colorado General Assembly.