Transportation bill advances in Senate committee, but fate uncertain

A measure that could raise up to $3.5 billion for Colorado’s long list of road and bridge repairs squeaked through a Republican-controlled Senate committee this week. But the bill will likely need the help of Senate Democrats to get across the finish line.

The transportation bill, which has the backing of both Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver, was tweaked by a dozen amendments, some of them major, when it was reviewed Tuesday by the Senate Transportation Committee.

Originally, the bill called for voters to approve an increase in the state’s sales tax from 29 cents on a $10 purchase to 35.2 cents. But as amended Tuesday, that increase dropped by a little over a penny to 34 cents on a $10 dollar purchase. The sales tax increase would generate about $576 million annually, but that’s a drop of about $140 million from the original proposal.

To cover some of the difference, the state’s general fund operating budget, which is made up of income and sales taxes, will be tapped for $100 million per year. The combined pots of money would then be leveraged into $3.5 billion for bonds, that will begin to whittle away at the state’s $9 billion backlog of transportation projects. Those bonds would be paid for over a 20-year period.

The move to lower the sales tax increase is a nod to passage of the hospital provider fee bill by the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the afternoon. That measure includes $100 million for rural transportation projects, and a 20-year bond of $1.35 billion. Lawmakers view the two bills as complementary, rather than competitive.

Related: Rural funding bill survives first crucial test

The transportation bill still needs work, said Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads, a coalition of business groups that back a transportation solution. Solin said the bill’s project list, developed by House Democrats, does not sufficiently fund the major corridors –  I-25 and I-70 – as well as adequately paying for repairs to a handful of state highways, such as Highway 550 and 160 in southwestern Colorado or Highway 71 south of Limon. There are also concerns that voters might not support the sales tax increase, Solin said, and that the increase might impede local communities from raising taxes for their own purposes. “But some of the additions made Tuesday are positive,” she added, pointing to the addition of $100 million from the state budget and reducing the sales tax increase.

The measure still faces stiff opposition from Senate Republicans, despite its sponsorship from Grantham and from transportation committee chair Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs. The bill cleared the committee Tuesday on a 3 to 2 vote, with Baumgardner and the committee’s two Democrats voting in favor.

Republicans Sens. John Cooke of Greeley and Ray Scott of Grand Junction both voted against. That could spell trouble for the measure if and when it reaches the Senate floor, and would at least theoretically require the support from a significant portion of the Senate’s 17 Democrats in order to survive, along with votes from Baumgardner and Grantham.

The bill moves on to the Senate Finance Committee for its next appearance.

Photo credit: Reflective Gypsy, 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.