Colorado’s new highway bill got a warm reception Tuesday from the same Republican-led committee that dropped a bomb on the issue last week.
Senate Bill 303 passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 3-2 party-line, the same vote that killed House Bill 1242, the bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Speaker Crisanta Duran.
The bill has to pass both chambers and, in a best case scenario, a conference committee to work out a compromise between the Republican-led Senate and Democratic House majority.
That all has to happen during the next week, before the session ends on May 10.
The current bill is sponsored by Sens. Tim Neville of Littleton and John Cooke of Greeley. They said their bill is better because House Bill 1242 included a “major, major” tax increase of 0.50 percent.
“It doesn’t poll well.” Cooke said of a tax increase. “We’ve seen before that voters in the state of Colorado don’t like sales tax increases, and we thought why put our names on something we can’t support when the citizens also can’t support it.”
Neville said the first bill his enthusiasm comes from previously used bonding for T-Rex and money that’s already in the state budget.
“I think we’re honoring the taxpayers who believe in fiscal stewardship,” he said. “That’s why we’re enthusiastic about this bill.”
The bill added an amendment supported by the Colorado Motor Carriers Association to raise the tag fees vehicles 10 years old or older. The amendment keeps the break for those currently getting the annual $3 plate, until the vehicle is sold and the new owner would pay the higher fee. The proposal is expected to raise $50 million the first year and rise to $176 million by its fifth year. The Colorado Motor Carriers, who proposed the amendment, said the revenue would continue to rise for 15 years as a grandfather clause expires and more vehicles fall under the new tag fee.
Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, said the bill was fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t express where the cuts from other programs would come from.
That decision would be made by future legislative budget writers.
“We’re somewhat masking the pain with ‘I don’t know where the cuts will be, let the JBC work that out; I don’t know where the cuts will be, but I’m sure we won’t endure any pain from those cuts, because, after all, our budget is rising,'” he said. “… It diminishes and therefore doesn’t give due weight to the real pain this bill in its current form, even as amended, would inflict.”
The chief nemesis of a tax hike for roads, Independence Institute president Jon Caldara, backed the new bill. If it fails in the legislature, he’s promising to run a ballot initiative in November to achieve much the same ends: asphalt without tax hikes.
He said that in a $26.8 billion budget that’s growing every year, legislators are spending less on roads than they were 10 years ago.
“The money, I believe, is inside the state budget,” Caldara said. “It’s difficult to be the guys who have to prioritize spending, but I believe that’s why you’re elected to make those decision.”
Sandra Hagan Solin of the business coalitions Fix Colorado Roads and the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance urged lawmakers to find a balanced bill that can pass both chambers and, ultimately with voters. She said voters will expect lawmakers to invest some of the state budget in the deal.
“A proposal must be politically viable under the dome, through both bodies and with the voters,” she told the committee. “The same principles apply with Senate Bill 303 … to find that balance, as we hoped come could be accomplished in House Bill 1242.”
Conservation Colorado, the 25,000-member environmental juggernaut, opposes the new bill because it pays for roads on the backs of other state needs.
“Borrowing from ourselves in not a solution,” said Conservation Colorado’s Sophia Guerrero-Murphy.
The latest bill squeezes out future expansion of transit.
“Any transportation bill should be a balanced package that reflects Colorado’s full transportation needs,” she said.
Editor’s note: This blog was updated to correct that the vote happened on Wednesday and to add more detail about the amendment that I didn’t yesterday evening.