House Democrats plan to nix bonding measure from Senate’s transportation bill

Former House Speaker Crisanta Duran (in purple), pictured here alongside Sen. Faith Winter, said she'll announce her 2020 plans "very, very soon." (Photo by John Herrick) 

House Democrats rejected a Republican-backed plan to use bonding to help pay for the state’s ailing transportation infrastructure when they announced a funding proposal on Tuesday. Instead, they want to spend up to $1.3 billion over the next six years on transportation projects using existing state revenues — with some strings attached to protect K-12 education funding. 

With about one week left in the legislative session, the counterproposal puts the two parties at a continued impasse over an issue both say is a top priority.

A key concern Democrats have with a compromise that passed out of the Senate in March is that future bond payments would come at the expense of other state funding needs like education.  

“Senate Bill 1, as it currently is, is like buying a new house without getting a new job first… It’s mortgaging our future,” Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who chairs the House Transportation and Energy Committee, told reporters gathered in the speaker’s office Tuesday afternoon.

The Democrats’ alternative plan would spend $495 million from the general fund next year followed by $166 million more from the general fund each year for five years as long as the so-called “negative factor” — the state’s debt to K-12 schools — does not grow any larger. Currently, it is at $822 million.

Of this money, 60 percent would go to the Colorado Department of Transportation to pay for highway projects, 15 percent would fund multimodal projects like bike lanes, bus lines and sidewalks — a five percent boost in funding over the Senate’s plan — and 10 percent would go to local governments to spend on transportation projects of their choosing.  

The $1.3 billion funding plan would be in addition to the $1.9 billion in borrowing approved last year. 

The House Transportation and Energy Committee is scheduled to vote on the proposed amendment Wednesday.

Democrats have long supported going to the ballot to ask voters for a tax increase to shore up more revenue to help pay for transportation projects. According to CDOT’s 2016 annual report, there are about $25 billion in unfunded highway projects planned over the next 25 years.

But for Republicans, raising new taxes was a sticking point.

They have said repeatedly that a tax hike is not needed this year given that the state has a $1.3 billion revenue surplus. They want to ask voters to approve a $3.5 billion bonding package, a signature part of their transportation funding proposal.

But a compromise that passed the Senate in March already chips away at that proposal by punting a ballot question until 2019 — a year after voters are likely to consider other transportation funding proposals. Those include a plan by business groups to ask voters to approve a sale tax increase to pay for transportation projects on the ballot in November.

Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley who is working on the transportation bill for Senate Republicans, told The Colorado Independent that he would be open to considering a bill that does not include bonding as long there is certainty there will be money available in future years for transportation.

The Democrats’ plan to make transportation funding contingent on education spending is a “trigger,” he said, meaning that in some years there may be no money for transportation.  

“That’s the risk we run with triggers. We might not get that money,” he said.

Cooke added that he hopes both sides can reach an agreement.

“I think we’re closer than we have been,” he said. “With each discussion, I think we get a little closer.”

The amended bill is expected to clear the committee tomorrow. It will still need final approval from the House. The House and Senate will then likely negotiate a final version in a conference committee. The legislative session ends May 9.

Photo: House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Rep. Faith Winter announced a transportation funding plan in the speaker’s office on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick