Two sides far apart in freeing up state transportation funds

DENVER — A game of chicken is going on in the Colorado Legislature over a measure to help fund transportation projects and help free up money in the state’s budget for other programs, and rural hospitals are caught in the middle.

The battle has even claimed its first victim, the virtual death of a separate measure to ask voters to raise sales taxes to fund transportation projects.

The fight has pitted not only Republicans against Democrats and the House against the Senate, but has led to infighting inside the two parties.

While the end of this story won’t be known for days or even weeks as the 2017 legislative session nears adjournment on May 10, the battle bubbled to the surface in a big way Thursday when some lawmakers accused others of interfering, stonewalling and refusing to negotiate in good faith.

“I’m very frustrated,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who introduced SB267, a bill that would leverage state-owned buildings to fund transportation bonds and take the state’s hospital provider fee out from under the revenue caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

“I’ve come more than halfway, and that ain’t enough,” he said of his talks with House Democrats. “I was interested in saving hospitals, and they are interested in keeping more taxpayer dollars. I don’t know where this goes from here.”

Sonnenberg said he is close to killing his own bill as a result, but stopped short of doing so when he appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee early Thursday in hopes of continuing negotiations with House Democrats over some provisions in it.

One of the skirmishes in the battle is Sonnenberg’s attempt to lower the TABOR revenue cap to reduce some of the money the state would be able to keep under the bill by taking the provider fee, used to fund health care programs for the poor, out from under TABOR.

House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, a co-sponsor of the bill who has been negotiating with Sonnenberg on it, rejected Sonnenberg’s portrayal of coming halfway on the measure.

“If you put five things on the table and on one of those things you say, ‘I’m cutting that one in half and meeting you halfway,’ not at all,” Becker said. “We made a gesture forward, and he’s saying, ‘Wow, that wasn’t enough, the whole thing is blown up.’ That’s not halfway.”

Initially, the bill would lower the revenue cap by $670 million, but Sonnenberg said he’s agreed to cut that in half to $335 million.

But even with that difference, which isn’t enough for Democrats, other aspects of the bill “just don’t add up,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.

“How can we justify borrowing dollars for transportation, while at the same time trying to lower the cap?” Duran asked. “The proposal that they’ve brought forward is just irresponsible.”

Both sides know that without that bill, money that is paid to hospitals across the state to reimburse them for medical costs for patients who have no or limited insurance, as the provider fee is designed to do, would dramatically be reduced.

That will hurt rural hospitals more than others, and even could force some to close, lawmakers say.

“The disappointing thing about Senate Bill 236 is that too many things have gotten attached, and I think we’ve lost focus on the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee whose district includes Delta County. “I’m hoping that we can come back to the real problem that we’re trying to solve.”

Taking the provider fee out from under the TABOR revenue cap has been a goal of Democrats for several years, but until recently hadn’t gotten any traction among Republicans who previously considered it an affront to TABOR itself because it would eliminate any TABOR tax refunds.

But the idea won more GOP support as an alternative to a proposed 0.62 percent increase to the state’s 2.9 percent sales tax to fund transportation.

A measure to do that, HB1242, cleared the Democratic-controlled House late last month, and the GOP-dominated Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month. Since then, however, it’s bogged down in the Senate Finance Committee.

While Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, and Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, held out hope that a miracle still could happen and the bill would advance, Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, said they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Tate — who is considered the swing vote on the bill in the committee — said Thursday he isn’t.

“I voted for Senate Bill 267, and I would prefer to see that bill pass,” he said.

While the bill to hike sales taxes is likely dead in the Legislature, it still is very much alive outside of the statehouse.

Several independent groups have filed proposed ballot measures dealing with transportation funding, some of which are nearly identical to the bill except they call for greater increases, and no reduction in motor vehicle fees, as HB1242 does.


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