DENVER — The Colorado House began the hard work of reviewing next year's proposed $28.9 billion budget package Wednesday, but the highlight is a proposal to spread some of the surplus revenues to local governments to fund transportation projects.
While it's not exactly known for sure how much money Mesa County, Grand Junction and other local governments would receive — or even if they will — it could be in the millions.
That's because the budget package under consideration includes an extra $495 million.
"We wanted this money to reach as many people and do the most good as possible," said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, who is chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.
"We are committed to increasing funding for transportation, but we wanted to make sure that we were doing it in a way that allows for a flexible option," she added. "We believe that local communities know exactly how they should be getting their folks around."
The Democrats want to split up that money to ensure that all parts of Colorado benefit from the state's revenue windfall, a product of a booming state economy and federal tax cuts approved by Congress last year.
Under their plan, the Colorado Department of Transportation would receive 35 percent of it, using it in its normal way of funding various projects statewide. Counties and municipalities, meanwhile, would get half — 25 percent each — while 15 percent would be earmarked for multimodal transit projects, which local governments could tap into through matching grants.
The funding is one-time money that comes from a surplus in state revenues, which Gov. John Hickenlooper immediately called for earmarking toward transportation.
It is somewhat related to a separate bill, which got out of the Colorado Senate on a unanimous vote Wednesday, and calls for issuing up to $3.5 billion in bonds to fund various major road projects around the state.
That measure, which now heads to the House, is the product of a compromise reached between the two major parties to ask voters for permission to enter into debt to pay back the bonds, which would cost the state about $5 billion over the next 20 years.
The compromise on the measure, SB1, calls for diverting 10 percent of state sales-and-use tax dollars now used for general government purposes and dedicate it to paying off those bonds. At the same time, it repeals part of a law approved last year that called for issuing bonds known as certificates of participation to fund about $1.9 billion in road projects. Doing so frees up about $150 million a year to partly cover the diversion of sales tax revenues.
That bill is important in this mix because the direct transportation money that the budget bills would divert to cities and counties would only happen if SB1 ends up failing. If the bill passes, and voters approve it in the fall, that $495 million would instead go to help pay off those bonds.
House Republicans are on board for adding as much money as possible for roads and bridges, but say much more could be done.
They've identified more than $631 million in additional funding they say could go to things they don't believe should come before transportation, such as the Colorado Film Office or certain Medicaid programs, to name only a few.
"From the start of the session, Republicans' top priority has been to fund the construction of more lane miles and to improve Colorado's aging roadways," said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. "House Republicans combed through this budget and found $631 million worth of programs that are less of a priority than safe, effective roads."
While Democrats aren't likely to cut the rest of the budget by that much, the whole point from both sides is to make sure that, one way or another, a substantial amount of money is earmarked for transportation needs, even if they are only a drop in the bucket of the $9 billion backlog of transportation projects identified by CDOT.
"We're investing in both education and transportation, we are working to reform (state pensions) by having a significant investment there, and there are a variety of other different victories," said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.
For Mesa County and Grand Junction, the additional transportation money could mean funding to help start the proposed 29 Road extension to Interstate 70.
While it's too early to say exactly how much money could come to the Grand Valley, estimates from the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties Inc. show about $1.2 million for Grand Junction and nearly $4.6 million for Mesa County.
That money would come under the normal disbursement where local governments get other state road money, meaning it could be exempt from revenue caps set under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
That's important, said County Commissioner Rose Pugliese.
The bill that the Democrats have amended, HB1320, also calls for more money — about $71 million — for capital construction projects, something Colorado Mesa University is adept at getting for various buildings and projects.