Driving out of control on highway funding

Democrats in the Colorado Legislature successfully pushed through a measure this year to significantly raise revenue for state highways and bridges, primarily by increasing registration fees on vehicles. Fair enough. Most Republicans opposed the measure, but the Democratic leaders held their party together and passed the bill, saying it was needed both to maintain roads and bridges and to create jobs.

However, Coloradans have good reason to wonder why some Democrats in the Legislature seem intent on undoing what they just accomplished by reducing a large stream of revenue that has been flowing to state highways. And they might question why one lawmaker is trying to resurrect a wildly unpopular tax based on how many miles people drive each year. That proposal was dropped earlier to win support for the registration-fee increases.

When it comes to transportation funding, the Democrats are driving erratically. They’re wildly weaving from fee increases to revenue cuts and back again.

The revenue cuts would come as part of Senate Democrats’ plan to do away with a 1990s’ budget restriction known as the Arveschoug-Bird Amendment, which limits growth in the state general fund to 6 percent a year. But that measure, combined with several other bills, requires that in good years, any revenue above the 6 percent limit goes to roads and other construction projects.

Democrats in the Senate say lawmakers should be able to spend all of the money as they see fit, not have to follow some prescribed formula.

However, those provisions have directed more than $1 billion to state highways in just the past three fiscal years, along with $240 million for other construction projects. And, even though the current economic situation guarantees there will be no extra money to transfer to highways this year, one legislative estimate suggests the provisions could produce more money for highways by 2012 than the just-passed vehicle registration fees.

Eliminating that revenue doesn’t make sense. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce doesn’t think so. It opposes the idea, saying it would devastate transportation funding.

The chamber is not alone. Several Democrats in the House have expressed concern about eliminating Arveschoug-Bird and the highway fund transfers. They include Rep. Joe Rice, of Littleton, who sponsored the legislation that raises registration fees to boost transportation revenue.

Meanwhile, one Senate Democrat, Suzanne Williams of Aurora, said she plans to introduce legislation for a pilot program on the vehicle-mile tax, which the Legislature already dropped once. The idea would be particularly costly for those living in the most rural areas of the state who have to drive more. But Williams said the measure is needed because, “We have to find another way to get revenues for our highways.”

Well, lawmakers wouldn’t have to look for as much new money if they avoid cutting revenue that highways already receive.

Democrats could improve their driving skills considerably if they killed both of these measures.


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