Senate Dems back transportation bill that lets voters decide how they want to pay for backlog of projects

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, proposed an amendment that persuaded two Republicans to join Democrats in passing the bill on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. Photo by John Herrick

After a scramble on the Senate floor late Wednesday night, lawmakers reached an agreement on a top priority transportation funding bill.

Prior to the changes, the bill bogged down last week after Democrats launched a filibuster on the Senate floor lasting hours — a dispiriting debut of legislation both parties agree is needed to pay for a 10-year funding backlog for highway projects totaling about $9 billion.

But an amendment emerged Wednesday, drafted by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, that persuaded two Republicans, Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, to join the Democrats.

A key provision in the new bill postpones asking voters to approve the sale of bonds to pay for transportation projects until 2019 — something that Republicans have been pushing hard on as an alternative to raising taxes.

Instead, the amendment to the bill allows voters in November to decide on a number of proposals by outside groups. This may include a measure by business groups to raise the state’s sales tax, which would generate up to $1 billion per year, or a measure by the libertarian Independence Institute, which would sell bonds to raise a total of $3.5 billion without paying more in taxes.

For Democrats, the agreement reached Wednesday increases the chances that a state sales tax hike will be approved. Democrats have been advocating for a new source of revenue, in part because paying for the transportation backlog —  a $25 billion funding gap over the next 25 years, according to its 2016 annual report — with existing revenue could come at the expense of other state programs, they say.  

“What I believe is we need a new revenue source,” Zenzinger said after the vote on Wednesday.  

For Republicans — or at least the two Republicans who bucked their party to join Democrats — it’s an assurance that at least something gets passed through both the Senate and the Democratic-controlled House, said Coram, a Republican who voted with the Democrats.

And for now, the amended bill will pump $500 million into transportation projects, a funding amount supported by Gov. John Hickenlooper, in 2019.

Another compromise reduces the amount of money that would come out of the General Fund to pay back the bonds —assuming voters approve a bonding package in 2019. The Republican bill, as introduced, wanted to take 10 percent of the General Fund each year to pay back the bonds, which would be about $350 million this year. The amended bill keeps this amount at about $250 million per year. Zenzinger said that this change was made to ensure that if the bonding package is approved next year, it won’t endanger other state programs.

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, wanted the bond sale to go on the ballot this year. Wednesday’s vote, he said, was a mixed bag.

“I’m glad we got something done and out of here,” Cooke said, who is a lead sponsor on the bill.

House leadership did not comment on the bill on Wednesday night.

Democrats did not get everything they wanted in the amendment, however. They want to see more funding for transit projects, including rail lines. Specifically, Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, wants the Northwest Rail project built, which RTD promised voters in 2004 through the Fast Tracks initiative when they approved a .4 percent sales tax increase.

“We want to see that rail before we die. We’re paying for it. We should get it,” Jones told The Colorado Independent.

But cost overruns have stunted the project, which would stretch along the U.S. 36 corridor from Denver to Longmont, passing through Boulder, Broomfield and Louisville along the way. Today, that project has no finish date. Bus routes are instead being used to serve these areas, which is about half the cost of the estimated $1.1 to $1.4 billion to complete the rail, according to a 2013 report.

Jones offered an amendment last week that would have allocated $200 million toward the project and required RTD finish it by 2025. That amendment failed.

And during a filibuster last week, Zenzinger said all five transportation districts should be assured that at least one project will be built. She talked about roads on the Western Slope that need guardrails, wildlife crossing and deer fencing, and wider shoulders. She mentioned how dangerous it was getting a flat tire on a stretch of highway 550 between Montrose and Ouray that had no shoulder and had sharp turns.

Aside from their policy concerns, Democrats said allegations of sexual harassment against a lead sponsor on the bill played a role in their filibuster last week. They are calling for a vote on a resolution to expel Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican who is accused of slapping and grabbing his former aide’s bottom multiple times. Baumgardner said he resigned from his position as chair of the Transportation Committee voluntarily and has denied any wrongdoing.

The lack of action on part of Senate Republican leadership to punish Baumgardner was one reason cited by Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman for stepping down from her leadership position, which she announced on Thursday morning.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, proposed an amendment that persuaded two Republicans to join Democrats in passing the bill on Wednesday. Photo by John Herrick