THE PODIUM: Transportation fix hits partisan speed bump

Author: John Cooke - February 22, 2018 - Updated: February 22, 2018

John Cooke

On the opening day of the current legislative session, Senate Republicans introduced a $3.5 billion state transportation plan. If approved by voters in November, Senate Bill 18-001 will take aim at the state’s $9 billion backlog in road and highway improvements — and do it without raising state taxes.

Weeks later, Democrats have yet to offer an alternative proposal, but one theme runs through their criticism of the Republican plan: they say we can’t fix our roads and highways without a tax increase. They react in feigned horror to the idea of using part of the state’s anticipated $11.5 billion 2019 General Fund revenues — including over $1 billion in tax revenue above the current year’s spending — for transportation projects.

Gov. Hickenlooper, too, wants to put a tax increase on the November ballot. That is an easy proposal to float when you are term-limited and won’t be on the ballot with the tax hike. He opposes the common-sense plan to divert a small share of existing sales tax revenues into the financing of transportation bonds. The governor instead suggests that we put a paltry $148.2 million in General Fund dollars toward roads, despite forecasts that see the state collecting about $290 million in new revenue in 2019 as a result of federal tax reform and another $747 million in new revenues generated by economic growth — a total of over $1 billion in new revenues.

Of course, most Coloradans assume some of their tax dollars are routinely spent on roads, bridges and transit. Nope, not true. In four of the last 10 years, the state’s General Fund budget included exactly zero General Fund dollars for transportation, and in the other six years, less than 1 percent of the General Fund budget went to critical infrastructure needs.

The governor and statehouse Democrats are trying to run away from the indisputable fact that every year, nearly 99 percent of Coloradans’ current tax dollars go to everything BUT roads and bridges. Yet the governor thinks Colorado voters will approve new taxes for transportation despite that shameful statistic!

It was not always so. In the 12 years 1997-2009, under Govs. Owens and Ritter, the state spent $1.433 billion of General Fund money on transportation projects, or about $120 million per year. In the decade since 2009, General Fund spending on roads has fallen to 25 percent of the previous decade’s investment. Is it any wonder we have a $9 billion backlog in transportation projects?

Democrats have a big problem. The centerpiece of their alternative plan is a substantial sales tax increase, but that idea is doomed to failure if current polls are to be believed.

Given the public hostility to a sales tax increase, why are so many statehouse Democrats so opposed to spending a very small percentage of annual General Fund dollars to address what every poll tells us is the public’s No. 1 priority? Not many legislators, Democrat or Republican, want to go before a local town hall to explain why they believe the state cannot afford to spend a meager 2 percent of annual state tax revenues to fix our roads.

Hickenlooper so strongly opposes using General Fund dollars on roads that he sent representatives of three state agencies to testify against the Republican transportation bill at its first hearing. They were opposed to committing even 2 percent of future tax revenue to transportation projects because their own agencies’ future budgets might be endangered.

Reporters and lobbyists couldn’t recall seeing state agencies attempting to derail a bill because it might someday diminish funding they felt entitled to. This bizarre episode illustrates all too well the low priority the governor places on transportation funding: roads and bridges deserve only the leftovers after every other state program is funded.

Will common sense prevail over entrenched bureaucratic greed and allow a realistic, bipartisan compromise to emerge from the current debate? Let’s hope so. But it is a sad commentary on statehouse politics that so many Democrats have only one answer to the shameful neglect of transportation funding over the past decade: raise taxes!

Read The Podium weekly; it’s where prominent players in Colorado politics address the big issues of the day.

John Cooke

John Cooke

John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, is a former Weld County sheriff who now represents Senate District 13 in the Colorado General Assembly.