HUDSON | Blame our underfunded highways on want of money, not waste

Author: Miller Hudson - October 9, 2018 - Updated: October 8, 2018

Miller Hudson

It has been apparent for more than a decade that Colorado needs to spend more money on its roads. If you have had the occasion to travel across our borders recently, it is apparent that even blood red states like Utah, Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming have figured out how to finance this central responsibility of government. For the past half dozen years each new Legislature has identified transportation funding as its bi-partisan, number one priority without significant result. On this November’s ballot voters have an opportunity to choose between a pair of citizen initiatives that embrace the competing theories regarding this challenge that have consistently defeated resolution by our legislators.

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then proposition 110 is a funding solution crafted by a very large committee. There is something embedded in it for nearly everyone to both like and detest. The sponsors, including the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Contractors Association, have been joined by a statewide list of supporters as long as your arm. This alliance of convenience is premised on assuring that everyone is provided a piece of the action. Towns and counties will receive roughly 40 percent of the booty for pet projects and a share is set aside, as well, for transit options. The underlying theory is that this broad-based coalition can browbeat enough supporters into returning ballots to overcome decades of policy inertia.

The 0.62-cent sales tax proposed as a funding mechanism in 110 would fund $6 billion in bonding and a total of nearly $10 billion in spending over the next 20 years. The sales tax is not rooted in a philosophical framework about who should pay or how to achieve fiscal equity for Colorado taxpayers. In fact, it abandons nearly a century of “user pay” underwriting for transportation costs in favor of a tax that pollsters believe is the most palatable to voters. Both candidates for governor have said they oppose 110, but for differing reasons. Democrat Jared Polis is troubled by the regressive nature of the sales tax as a funding mechanism and Republican Walker Stapleton indicates he suspects there is plenty of money in the general fund to address the state’s transportation needs (although why this hidden pot of money has remained undetected by the Joint Budget Committee goes unexplained).

Which brings us to Jon Caldara’s proposition 109 that directs legislators to make 20 annual payments for the purpose of amortizing $3.5 billion in highway bonds without a tax increase. These bonds would finance a list of specific road projects. If this “Fix our damn roads” initiative prevails, voters will toss a grenade into the ranks of the lobbying corps at the Capitol. Caldara is banking on a public perception there is sufficient “waste, fraud and abuse” in the state budget to readily finance his proposed bonds. This is not necessarily a bad bet. A recent nationwide poll found 65 percent of Americans believe a significant share of their taxes are wasted. In Colorado, this portion is probably a tick or two higher.

The truth is that as soon as our economy experiences its next downturn, bond payments will have to be funded ahead of everything else supported from the general fund. We can predict who the losers will be on the basis of recent spending priorities — K-12 and higher education. The knife fights that will ensue won’t be pretty as programs shiv each other in an effort to retain their piece of the budget. The notion that both Republican and Democratic legislators have consciously ducked their transportation responsibilities in deference to wasteful expenditures is preposterous.  On the positive side, and surely an unanticipated consequence, could be a legislative referral to voters for a partial TABOR repeal in 2019.

It turns out the camel evolved as a substitute for the horse in desert climates. Proposition 110 is a similarly ugly compromise. Its proponents would like us to believe Colorado tourists will help contribute to financing our roads. The sales taxes they pay during the few days they visit Colorado can’t possibly provide more than a single digit assist. Yet, if we’ve learned anything it is that further delay only seems to contribute to further delay. If you’re fed up with congestion on our highways, it may be wise to hold your nose and vote YES on 110.  You are even likely to see improvements in your neighborhood. Our transportation funding challenge hasn’t been one of incompetence or venality; it’s been a matter of dollars.

Unless policy cage matches amuse you, a NO vote on 109 seems advisable. Placing revenue and spending rules in Colorado’s constitution is premised on the theory that our economy will remain the same over time. That has proven dumb. Using the ballot box to tell legislators how to spend the dollars they manage for us is even dumber.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.