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Denver chamber-led coalition plots transportation tax strategy at private meeting

Author: Joey Bunch - April 20, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

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In this Jan. 7 photo, traffic backs up on Interstate 70 in Colorado, a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Colorado business and civic leaders along with elected officials met in private Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to talk about a potential request to voters to raise sales taxes statewide for transportation.

Leading a statewide coalition of business and elected leaders, the Denver chamber has filed paperwork on a handful of potential transportation-related ballot questions this November.

The group that gathered Thursday decided to wait and see what the legislature does before deciding whether to ask voters statewide for as little as 0.35 cents on the dollar to pay for only local needs and transit or a full penny to fund a broader set of transportation projects, including widening clogged interstates.

Colorado Politics asked to attend the meeting but was denied.

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Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, talks at the Capitol April 9, urging lawmakers to pass a major transportation bill, pending in the House. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

“The primary focus was discussion about Senate Bill 1, and how strongly we all support increased funding for transportation,” Kelly Brough, the chamber’s president and CEO, told Colorado Politics in the chamber’s lobby after the 90-minute meeting. “I’d say we all really re-committed ourselves to trying to work at the Capitol to make that work. That felt really good.

“The second probably big decision we made was not to pick ballot titles until the (legislative) session is done. … We can’t make that decision until we know what the state is able to contribute.”

In its current form, Senate Bill 1 would ask voters in November 2019 to give the state permission to borrow $3.5 billion and pay it back with $250 million a year from the state budget. The vote was delayed until 2019 to see how outside ballot initiatives, if any, fare this November.

If voters approve a sales tax increase, the legislature could scrap the 2019 vote.

Senate Bill 1 still must pass before the General Assembly adjourns on May 9. The bill is not yet scheduled for its first hearing in the House, where it’s expected to undergo amendments. It would likely go to a conference committee to work out a compromise for the House and Senate to vote on. The Senate passed the bill on March 28.

At the end of the session, the statewide coalition led by the Denver chamber would have a little more than four more months left to collect 98,492 signatures from registered Colorado voters to place a measure on the ballot, including at least 2 percent of the registered voters from each of the 35 state Senate districts.

“When we pick one of those titles that goes forward, part of it has to be, ‘What is the state able to contribute?’ because it informs what voters are asked to contribute and complete,” Brough said.

Colorado Politics has been told by sources close to the decision-making process that the some coalition members are deeply concerned that Coloradans, who are generally reluctant to support statewide tax hikes, would be even less so during a time of economic growth.

The legislature this year is flush with cash from the federal tax cuts and the booming economy. Democrats, however, say those good times won’t last, and when the budget tightens again, lawmakers will have to repay transportation bonds and cut funding for social services and schools.

Brough said the coalition had not done any recent polling, but December polling showed encouraging results.

“We got very strong direction from voters in Colorado that they want a solution and they want to see more money go into transportation,” she said.

The chamber found that 3 in 4 people surveyed think investments in transportation are critical, and many would support a sales tax increase, Brough said. She declined to share the polling data with Colorado Politics, because she said it belonged to multiple members of the coalition.

Brough and the coalition’s political consultant, Roger Sherman, said Thursday’s gathering about taxes — which included mayors and county commissioners — was not covered by the state’s open meetings law, because there was not more than one person from any elected board.

Neither Brough nor Sherman would share the names of elected officials who attended the meeting.

Brough said Colorado Politics’ lawyer should ask for the list of attendees, because it involves a legal question about the state’s Sunshine Law; she said she was sure the coalition was not violating that law by not opening the meeting to the public and press.

Sources inside the meeting said Brough told the group they could be shown a back door out of the building afterward. A chamber spokeswoman confirmed the comment, but said it was a joke.

“For years, this coalition has been discussing our state’s desperate need for transportation funding,” Sherman said in a statement to Colorado Politics a few minutes before the meeting. “We firmly believe that diverse tents result in good policy making, so this coalition is made up of business and nonprofit executives, elected officials, transportation experts and association representatives from across the state.

“We’re having candid conversations about the various options for funding transportation in this state and are not in violation of any open meetings laws,” Sherman added. “In crafting policy, people want to feel free to have an exchange of ideas and speak candidly and any proposal that recommends an increase in taxes obviously be public as it will be presented to voters and debated.”

Colorado Politics tried to talk to numerous people entering and leaving the meeting who declined our requests, including four who declined to provide their names. The coalition sent out an email to meeting participants in advance to assure them that the meeting was above-board.

“You may encounter press asking about this and we wanted to assure everyone we verified our position was factually and legally correct,” the email stated.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.