Bill for road tax ballot measure dies in Senate

Five citizen initiatives in the works

DENVER — Its fate was well known long before the Senate Finance Committee started its work Tuesday. A measure to ask voters for permission to raise sales taxes to fund transportation projects is dead, at least in the Legislature.

Last week, Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, and Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican whose district includes Garfield County, said they didn’t have the votes to get it out of the committee.

They were right.

Sens. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, Tim Neville of Littleton and Jack Tate of Centennial said they could not go along with their fellow Republicans to send HB1242 to the full Senate, where it had enough votes to pass.

The measure, part of a hard-fought compromise between Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran, would have placed a measure on the November ballot asking voters to raise sales taxes a half a percent to generate new revenue to fund road and multimodal transportation projects.

The measure was expected to generate about $467 million a year in revenue, the bulk of which would have gone to projects approved by local transportation panels and in direct payments to local governments.

“We are looking to place this on the ballot this November and ask the voters to make the decision on whether or not they want to go down this route, whether or not they want to increase their own taxes,” Grantham said. “It’s not an easy thing to ask of anyone, but we have heard much about this problem around the state, about the need around the state.”

But while the sales tax idea may be dead in the Legislature, which is nearing an end to the 2017 session, it isn’t outside of the statehouse.

Various groups that back raising new money for road and transit projects currently have five ballot proposals before the Colorado Initiative Title Setting Review Board to place a similar measure before voters this fall.

Some of those proposals similarly call for issuing up to $3.5 billion in bonds to fund projects immediately, using a portion of the new tax revenue to pay them off in 20 years.

The proposals split the revenues between the state and local governments, using about 15 percent of that to fund multimodal projects.

A few of the groups said that in the end, three people spoke for millions of Coloradans, denying them the right to speak for themselves.

While some opponents said there wasn’t enough transit funding, others said the money only should be used for roads and bridges. A number of opponents also said they don’t like the idea of raising taxes, saying they don’t understand why the state can’t find the money elsewhere to fund transportation.

Republican senators on the committee said they have various reasons for opposing the bill, including not wanting to see people who are struggling economically to have to see more of their money going to government.

“We should exhaust our options before we go to the taxpayers,” Tate said. “While there’s a sense of urgency right now, and I understand that, I just personally feel that maybe there isn’t that much of a cost of waiting.”

Numerous groups from around the state — regardless of political affiliation — disagreed, telling the committee that the state has waited long enough for a solution to a major problem.

“We’ve worked on this bill for years,” Christian Reece, executive director of Grand Junction-based Club 20, told the committee, which killed the bill on a 3-2 party-line vote. “The local government share that would be raised by this is nearly double what they get now. That’s really significant for our rural communities who just don’t have enough to scrape by to get these projects done.”

Reece said that while some balked at using some of the money for transit, she said that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional models such as buses or trains. In rural parts of the state, for example, it could be smaller vans that would transport seniors from remote areas to local hospitals.

Reece also said that if something isn’t done soon on transportation funding, richer more heavily populated areas of the Front Range are going to go get it on their own and pass local measures to fund their own needs, freezing out rural parts of the state in the process.

“There’s broad support from Republicans and Democrats. Club 20 is in agreement with Boulder County on this issue, for crying out loud, and that may be the first time that’s ever happened,” Reece said. “That really highlights the compromise and the hours spent working through some of the challenges in this legislation. If there are sticking points in this legislation that you don’t like, let’s work through it.

“Please don’t kill it because of partisan politics,” she added. “That really doesn’t get us anywhere. Our roads are literally crumbling beneath us, and a lack of action on this is only going to exacerbate that problem. We need to see leadership.”


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