The highway-funding ballot proposal by the Independence Institute that kind of was — though many were skeptical — won’t be, after all.
You may recall the libertarian-leaning Denver think tank had announced in March it had filed a ballot proposal with the state that would require the General Assembly to issue $2.5 billion in bonds to fund a raft of highway projects statewide — and repay the debt by “reallocating priorities in the state budget.” No tax hike or fees; it would be paid for out of the state budget’s existing funding stream. Dubbed the “Fix Our Damn Roads” ballot initiative, it was a response to the General Assembly’s own transportation plan, which also would have gone to the ballot.
As it turn out, that much-anticipated, grand legislative compromise — one part tax hike, one part bonding — fizzled amid partisan sniping and recriminations (surprise) before the end of the 2017 session.
Today, Independence President Jon Caldara announced via his regular newsletter that Fix Our Damn Roads had hit a dead end, as well:
… with the deadline fast approaching, the reality is that there just isn’t enough time to get all the petitioning done with the margins we need. So, we’ll be re-filing the initiative for the 2018 ballot, which will give us the time we need to get the job done right.
Which no doubt left skeptics feeling vindicated. Many had smelled a ruse all along. The speculation was that Independence had floated the proposal only to steal the thunder of the legislative proposal — and to provide a pretext for fellow tax-hike-loathing Republicans not to sign onto the legislative proposal because, hey, here was a highway plan without a tax hike.
Caldara in his public statement today insisted, as he has in the past, that the Independence proposal was the real deal:
…we didn’t file this citizen’s initiative just to play defense. We are committed to bringing it to the voters and getting legislators to do what they are so hesitant to do. I had hoped we could get it on this fall’s ballot.
Yet, he also acknowledge the stillborn ballot issue’s ripple effects:
So far, our proposal has scared away all the competing “transportation” tax increases (and there were a ton of them) from being on this fall’s ballot. So, in that sense, mission accomplished!
Guess we’ll have to wait until 2018 to see if Independence follows through.
Meanwhile, transportation did get a consolation prize: Senate Bill 267 turned out to be an unanticipated, grand compromise of a different sort. In addition to extending life support to Colorado’s rural hospitals and providing some capital funding for schools, it also set up a $1.8 billion roads program and a $120 million capital construction program by selling certificates of participation on state property. It’s a form of debt that the courts have said doesn’t require voter approval under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, meaning, it won’t go to the ballot.
That provision of the omnibus legislation obligates the state to pay $100 million in general fund money and $50 million in Highway User Tax Fund money each year to pay off the debt. Not the level of highway funding that either of the now-moot proposals would have raised, but a start.