The House Friday gave its final blessing to a transportation bill that will ask voters in November to okay a hike in the state’s sales tax. The measure passed on a 41 to 24 vote, with four Republicans joining the House’s 37 Democrats in support.
The measure, which has bipartisan sponsorship in the House and Senate, would ask for voters to approve an increase in the sales tax that would go from 29 cents on a $10 dollar purchase to 35 cents on a $10 purchase. The sales tax would raise about $752 million per year.
Colorado has a transportation projects backlog worth about $9 billion, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). If approved by voters, the measure would take care of about $3.5 billion of that backlog.
Lawmakers were clearly conflicted Friday about asking Coloradans for more money. Most House Republicans insisted the state’s general operating budget could be cut enough to pay for the measure’s transportation wish list. Republican Rep. Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park, who voted against the bill in both the transportation and finance committees, switched on Friday to a “yes,” telling her colleagues that it’s the legislature’s responsibility to take care of the state’s transportation needs — not outside groups, a reference to opposition from the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity and the libertarian Independence Institute.
Democrats argued that cutting the budget to raise enough money as Republican wish just isn’t possible, and pointed out that their GOP colleagues have never offered any concrete proposals on just where the budget could be cut. And both sides wrangled over just what transportation projects this new pot of money would cover. Rural lawmakers claimed the bill favors urban projects. Urban lawmakers complained that their projects have been ignored for years.
Of that $752 million, $375 million would be used to pay for bonds that would generate the $3.5 billion needed to pay for CDOT’s transportation most critical projects. The remaining dollars would be split 70/30, with the largest portion going to local communities to deal with their own transportation needs. The rest would go into a “multimodal” fund for sidewalks and other pedestrian projects and bike paths, for example. That drew opposition from Republicans on several levels: that 30 percent was too much and that those types of projects were unworthy of state support.
The measure survived several tough fights in the past two weeks. Republicans were able to attach an amendment to the bill to remove late fees on motor vehicle registration, which would take about $75 million out of the bill’s funding. Lawmakers also raised concerns about some of the money possibly going for “managed lanes,” a CDOT euphemism for toll roads. One of the bill’s sponsors, Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, told the Denver Business Journal she would ensure the project’s money would not pay for toll lanes on interstate projects such as I-25 north of Denver or I-70 through the mountains. The amendment she offered wasn’t quite a ban, but it did put restrictions on CDOT’s ability to use those dollars for toll lanes, mandating the department seek public input on possible toll lanes as well as other requirements.
The bill now moves on to the state Senate, where Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee, will do the heavy lifting. The measure is expected to draw strong opposition from the chamber’s more conservative members, including Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. The Senate has a razor-thin 18-17 Republican majority, which will require the bill’s sponsors to obtain strong support from Democrats.
Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation