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Ernest LuningErnest LuningMarch 8, 20188min2446

Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, has turned in petitions to qualify for the June primary but is considering also going through the assembly process — a move that could win him top-line designation on the ballot and potentially knock out the only other statewide elected official in the running, Colorado Politics has learned.


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Conrad SwansonConrad SwansonFebruary 3, 20185min423
When he was first elected, Colorado Springs was behind the curve, trailing more innovative cities like Boulder and Collins, Gov. John Hickenlooper recalled. Now, when he travels the state, Hickenlooper said Colorado Springs is the city he uses as an example of Colorado’s robust economy. “For the last two years, I go to other cities […]

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Joey BunchJoey BunchAugust 14, 20178min620

By chipping away at The Gap, El Paso County voters could do something that some state legislators encourage and others dread: siphon off support for a statewide transportation plan by spending their money locally.

The Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority board last week approved a ballot question to ask voters if it’s OK to set aside $10 million to help pay to widen a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 25 in El Paso County. The seed money is part of a larger effort to widen the interstate from Monument to Castle Rock, a 17-mile stretch known as The Gap.

I-25 narrows to two lanes in each direction between the two reasonably well-off communities, causing traffic jams and collisions. The state Department of Transportation says it doesn’t have the money in its current budget, and state lawmakers haven’t figured out a way to get them enough. Statewide, CDOT needs $20 billion over the next 20 years just to keep up with growth, the agency contends.

CDOT has estimated the Gap will cost $290 million and $600 million. Colorado leaders have even appealed to the White House for help, calling the Gap a critical transportation corridor.

If voters allow it, the PPRTA would put up $10 billion for roughly a 2-mile stretch in El Paso County, if other money joins it. Where that money comes from, nobody knows.

President Trump has promised a $1 trillion national infrastructure investment, but it remains to be seen if he can pass it and how much, if any, would go to Colorado’s overburdened interstates. The result of getting that money, however, could mean toll roads.

The Gap is one of the three main arguments for voters and lawmakers to find money to address the state’s critical transportation needs. As symbolic projects go, the Gap joins I-25 from Denver to Fort Collins and the Interstate 70 mountain corridor as the chief selling points to statewide voters.

Legislators in the last session discussed a sales tax to pay back a $3.5 billion loan for projects statewide, including the Gap. Three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, including Colorado Springs’ Owen Hill, didn’t like the tax increase and voted down the bipartisan House Bill 1242.

Colorado Springs leaders were skeptical of raising the state sales tax, since  cities rely on sales taxes. Hiking the state sales tax would make it more difficult for local governments to pay for local projects in the future. The Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corp. preferred lawmakers look instead at the state gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991.

Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver warned before the session started that if lawmakers didn’t pass a statewide plan, then communities such as El Paso County that can afford to pay for local needs won’t later support state money for communities that can’t.

El Paso County is proving she’s right.

Proponents of the El Paso County plan hope putting up local money will spur financial support from other local governments and make the project more attractive for federal and state dollars.

“Taking this to the voters shows consensus and solidarity and support,” said Jim Godfrey, chairman of the PPRTA Citizen Advisory Committee, which unanimously favored adding the issue to the ballot. “It would be hard for the state to ignore if we put money up against it.”

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, told Colorado Politics in June that communities should work on such local options, because statewide solutions are slow and elusive.

El Paso County voters might have the chance to approve another source of funding for the project, as well.

The County Commission is weighing options for what to do with about $15 million in excess tax revenue. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, limits annual growth of some local government tax revenue and requires the surplus be returned to taxpayers or used for voter-approved purposes.

 

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller hopes another ballot question will ask voters if some of the county’s revenue surplus — he’s pushing for $7.5 million — should go toward the I-25 widening. Commissioners have until Sept 8 to add issues to the ballot and finalize language.

The I-25 Gap Coalition, made up of state officials and local leaders from communities along the roughly 17-mile two-lane stretch of road, met for the first time in June to explore options to speed the widening.

“This is a huge step forward to get this on the ballot,” said Waller, vice chairman of the PPRTA board of directors and a former state House minority leader. “In order for us to be able to really make the case to the state and the federal government, it needs to be a collaborative effort.”

State and local leaders have so far been unsuccessful in identifying other sources of funding for the Gap, which state transportation officials say could be finished by 2021 if the money is available. Two federally-required environmental planning studies, paid for by money originally earmarked for the C-470 Express Lane, are currently under way, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson.

CDOT hopes to find some contributors by the end of the year, Wilson said. Federal grants or state funds are two possibilities. In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law Senate Bill 267, a bipartisan omnibus bill aimed much more at helping rural hospitals and rural transportation than clogged interstates.

By monkeying around with how an assessment on hospital bed occupancy and selling and leasing back government buildings, the legislature thinks it can generate more than $1.8 billion for transportation over the next 20 years. But 25 percent off the top goes to rural counties and another 10 percent to transit. The rest of the money hasn’t been attached to specific projects yet. The Gap won’t get much in the next few years against many competitors for a divvied-out share.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct that Chris Holbert is the Senate majority leader not the house leader.



Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 16, 20176min330

State transportation director Shailen Bhatt told leaders in Colorado Springs Tuesday morning he chooses to see a glass half full after the legislature adjourned last week.

That only proves Bhatt is an optimist. Against $20 billion in projected needs over the next two decades, the General Assembly came up with just $1.88 billion, and even that number is misleading. Clogged interstates, such as the 17-mile stretch between Monument and Castle Rock, will get only a fraction of that.

Rural communities get a quarter of the new money created by Senate Bill 267. Transit gets 10 percent, and the Colorado Department of Transportation has to pony $50 million from its already stretched maintenance budget.

“We’ll be taking a small amount of peanut butter and spreading it on a big piece of toast,” Bhatt said after his talk.

He was scheduled to speak in Pueblo, Vail, Grand Junction and Durango Tuesday as part of Infrastructure Week, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s observance of the state’s critical needs.

Bhatt wished he could deliver them all good news to those communities about their local projects, but his promises would be as empty as his pockets.

“Everywhere in this state there are incredibly important projects just waiting to go,” he said. ‘What I don’t get to do today is go to all these places and say, ‘You get a project and you get a project …’ ”

Bhatt and other transportation leaders on Tuesday spoke of their concerns about the eventual economic impact of traffic jams and dilapidated roads and bridges.

Two bills that would have asked voters to approve billions of dollars in new money died in the Republican-led Senate.

One would have asked voters to approve a 0.50 sales tax increase and the other would have done away with the flat $3 price for tags on vehicles 10 years or older.

Instead, lawmakers reclassified a fee on hospital beds that will cost Coloradans on their refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of rights.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers thanked his city’s residents for voting last month to forego up  to $12 million in TABOR refunds to pay for stormwater improvements. In 2015, Colorado Springs voters passed Ballot Issue 2C to create a 0.62 percent sales tax to raise $50 million annually for five years to pay for transportation needs.

“We’ve just begun our journey in terms of infrastructure,” Suthers told the crowd assembled at The Antlers hotel Tuesday morning. “We still have work to do in the 2C effort … I really applaud those voters who stepped up in this regard.”

Suthers, a former state Republican attorney general who is being considered by President Trump to be the next FBI director, advocated for both taxes. Many of his GOP counterparts in the legislature lacked the “political courage” that Bhatt said conservative leaders in states such as Utah have shown to raise money for transportation.

Of Colorado lawmakers, Suthers said, “They stepped up a little this year, but they need to step up more.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper was disappointed that legislature couldn’t deliver on what Democrats and Republicans cited as their top goal for the four-month session. He is considering calling a special session.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Independence Institute, the Denver-based libertarian-leaning think tank, are considering ballot initiatives in November. The Independence Institute would ask voters to require lawmakers to find money solely for roads and bridges in the existing state budget, which is $28.5 billion for next year.

Other ballot issues being discussed could ask voters to approve an increase in the state’s sales or gas taxes with a portion of the money going for transit projects.

Mark Waller, an El Paso County commissioner and a former House minority leader in the legislature, said the costs and responsibility have to shared by local, state and federal sources to tackle such major projects as interstates 25 and 70.

“We don’t get this done unless we all work on it together,” he told the chamber members.


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningFebruary 15, 20175min612

Incumbent Colorado Republican Party Vice Chairman Derrick Wilburn said Wednesday he’s endorsing Sherrie Gibson for the vice chair position in the upcoming state GOP leadership elections. “I know what it takes to be effective in this role,” Wilburn said in a statement. “Sherrie is more than capable. I whole-heartedly offer an enthusiastic endorsement of Sherrie Gibson for vice chair."


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningSeptember 22, 201631min817

Republican political consultant Dustin Olson has been at the center of national politics and numerous local campaigns — he and his wife, Carolyn, just celebrated the 10th anniversary of Olson Strategies & Advertising, their Colorado-based firm — but it was a few days he spent touring Civil War battlefields and shopping at Wal-Mart with a comic actor who once wrote speeches for Richard Nixon that propelled him on his path.