Lawmakers draft bill that relies on sales tax hike to pay for state’s transportation needs

With the 2017 General Assembly just days from its halfway mark, a bill to remedy some of the state’s biggest transportation headaches showed up in the House this afternoon, and it came with the gold-star backing of the Republican Senate President and the Democratic Speaker of the House, as well as the chairs of the transportation committees in both chambers.

House Bill 17-1242 would raise $3.5 billion — most of it through a bond measure — for repairs to state roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The bonds would be paid for through an increase in the state’s sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent and must be approved by voters, according to a news release issued by House Democrats Wednesday afternoon. The new tax would go into effect next January and stay in place for 20 years. 

The state has estimated it needs $9 billion for its transportation infrastructure repairs.

“Every county and city in Colorado will share in the benefits from this transportation package,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, said in the news release. “And we will insist on transparency and accountability, so that voters will know where their dollars are going and how they will be used. This package, if approved by the legislature and the voters, would be a major step forward for this state and firmly position us for growth and prosperity for the next 20 years.”

Some of that $3.5 billion is expected to go for Front Range projects, which could include widening I-25 north and south of Denver. The bill requires the Department of Transportation to provide a a specific list of projects that will be paid for by the bond measure and include that information in the “Blue Book,” the voter’s guide that is provided before the November election.

House Democratic leadership have backed the sales tax idea, but it was a major sticking point for Senate Republicans. But Republicans got something they wanted, too: a cut in the state budget to pay for some of $3.5 billion cost of the bill. House Democrats’ spokesman Dean Toda said he believed that cut would be around $50 million per year. Where those cuts would be made is not yet clear.

Republicans won on one other front, too. The November ballot measure would seek reductions in state vehicle registration fees, which have been on Republicans’ wish lists ever since Democrats passed a law, later approved by voters, that drove up the fees in 2009. That law generated almost $900 million between 2010 and 2014, according to a 2015 state audit, and paid for 87 bridge repairs and 282 other road-related safety projects between 2010 and 2014.

“Introduction of this transportation bill doesn’t mean we’ve arrived, just that we’ve hit another important mile marker on the long and winding road to a long-term transportation fix for Colorado,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican. “This bill probably isn’t what the final product will look like, because what’s being introduced is a work in progress and there’s still a lot of debate, compromise and hard work ahead before we’ll have a proposal good enough to pass muster with voters. But I’m optimistic that we’ll get there in the end.”

Duran and Grantham have scheduled a joint press conference Thursday morning to address the bill’s specifics.

Photo credit: _ChrisUK via Creative Commons license, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.