Bumpy road: Colorado lawmakers to pull all-nighter on transportation bill

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Posted at 7:00 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 18:15:14-04

DENVER — A bill that promises to offer significant investments in transportation infrastructure spending in the state faced its first big committee test on Monday.

Senate Bill 260 would raise $5.3 billion in transportation funding over 11 years. Roughly $3.8 billion would come from raising fees on gasoline, delivery, electric vehicle registrations, ride-share services and more. The other $1.5 billion would come from the state’s general fund.

“Everyone that uses the roads, consumers, individuals, we’re all contributing a little bit more to solve big problems and that’s what Coloradans do,” said Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, the bill’s co-sponsor.

The gasoline fee would start at .02 cents per gallon in 2022 and would eventually get up to .08 cents per gallon.

Nearly 100 people signed up to testify on Monday either in support or opposition.

“We have not adequately addressed our transportation funding in 30 years which means everyone is driving over potholes, which costs us money when we have to repair our cars. We are sitting in traffic and that’s time that we could spend with our children or on the job,” Winter said.

Winter believes this bill will end up saving people more in the long run since better roads means less car repairs.

Republicans, meanwhile, do not believe this bill is the best way to move forward and offered an amendment on Monday that would completely do away with the 197-page bill and offer a 4-page alternative.

The amendment would require the state to use the first $2 billion of federal stimulus money coming into the state to go to transportation funding.

“Of those $2 billion, $1.5 billion would go directly into projects right now. Start, let’s go, shovel ready, let’s get the job done. The other $500 million goes into a savings fund that can then be used to be leveraged for future bonding,” said Sage Naumann, the communications director for the Colorado Senate Republicans.

He believes the amendment would result in more immediate funding for the state’s transportation system than the current version of the bill without raising fees.

“We’re not going to wait 10 years to get started and do this one small overpass at a time. This is going to be immediate,” he said.

Naumann and Senate Republicans say they don’t think the state should be considering raising fees at a time when the federal government is considering a major infrastructure funding bill that would bring billions into the state.

Winter disagrees, saying the state is already using $562 million in stimulus funding for transportation projects currently while reducing the FASTER fee — Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act of 2009 — in the immediate term to provide economic relief for families.

“But stimulus funding is one time funding. We haven’t solved this issue since 1991. Now is the time for a sustainable solution that’s going to get us beyond this immediate stimulus and set us into the future for success,” Winter said.

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity has come up with its own idea for how to fight off this bill using a ballot initiative.

“As the legislature is looking at increasing and adding fees on gasoline purchases to a certain amount, we’re looking at reducing the state gas tax by the exact same amount,” said Jesse Mallory, the Colorado state director for Americans for Prosperity.

Mallory believes Senate Bill 260 uses fees as a way to work around the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) which requires voter approval for any tax increases.

He also argues that by creating multiple fee-based enterprises for the revenue is another way Democratic co-sponsors have found a way around the ballot.

Proposition 117, which was approved by voters in November, requires the state to seek voter approval before creating any fee-based enterprise that’s expected to raise $100 million or more within the first five years of its creation.

None of the enterprises that would be created under the transportation bill would singularly cross that $100 million point. Combined, however, they would.

Mallory hopes the ballot question would bring voters back into the discussion.

“What it does is allows the people to be brought into this conversation to decide if we want to pay this fee or not,” Mallory said.

Winter argues lowering taxes with this ballot initiative would mean less funding for transportation overall in a state that has been underfunding it for years.

For years, lawmakers have been discussing ways to solve the transportation funding issue. Democrats have one idea; Republicans have a different one. Those disagreements played out during a long committee hearing Monday for a bill that faces a long road ahead in the legislature.