Colorado lawmakers face balancing act between short-term savings and long-term transportation needs

Posted at 6:20 PM, Mar 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-21 12:58:03-04

DENVER — Between inflation, sky-high gas prices and everything else, it’s not cheap to be a driver these days.

State lawmakers are trying to save people money this session in the form of a few bills. Some of the ideas are big while others are small, but bill sponsors say they will add up real savings.

House Bill 22-1004 is one of the more humble cost-saving transportation measures proposed. It calls for the state to keep driver’s license registration fees at current levels rather than allowing them to rise.

“I feel like it's our mission to create some stability, and this is one of the ways we're trying to create some economic stability, making sure we're not raising fees,” said Rep. David Ortiz. D-Arapahoe, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Currently, the fee for a driver’s license is $30.87. However, the Department of Revenue projects that it will need to increase the fee for the next two years to maintain its same levels of service. The projected increase is $2.

The bill calls for the state to instead dedicate $3.9 million to the licensing service cash fund to keep the fees at their current level.

Ortiz admits it’s not the biggest bill or the most savings the state is offering, but he insists for families on fixed incomes, every bit can help.

“I know what it's like to try and make your budget work when things seem to keep increasing,” Ortiz said. “This is really one of those small ways that we can save Colorado money, and this is just going to be one tool in the bat belt.”

The bill has already passed two committees. However, Republicans have voted against the idea each time, expressing concerns that this bill is only a temporary cost-saving measure for one year. Others called the bill disingenuous since it doesn’t reduce fees, it just keeps them the same, while some worried that the bill is meant to replenish an insolvency issue, not save money.

Another bill, House Bill 22-1254, would increase the fees for people who file their vehicle registration late.

“Everyone is noticing that there are a lot of vehicles on the road that are registered in other states and that aren't registered at all. Other people have called my office many times and said, ‘Why am I paying $1,000 to register my car when there's so many people that are not paying at all?’” said Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver.

Valdez says it’s unfair to have some people who are following the laws brunt the cost while others register late or don’t register at all and get away without paying the previous fees they owe.

Right now, a driver has 60 days from the date of purchase or 90 days from the time they move Colorado to register their vehicle. When they do not, current law caps the late fees at $100. The bill calls for a prorated registration fee and tax for drivers to pay what they owe.

“This will mean real cost reduction immediately for everybody, because we're collecting more revenue that we're already owed,” Valdez said.

In order to keep the fees revenue neutral, it also lowers the registration fee on other vehicles. For vehicles that are less than seven years old, the fee would be lowered from $12 to $9. For vehicles that are less than 10 years old, the fee would drop from $10 to $7. For vehicles that are more than 10 years old, the fee would drop from $7 to $5.

That fee decrease would only last until 2026 before the fees would return to their normal amount. The bill faces its first committee test on Monday.

For House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, these bills are part of an overall focus on lowering costs in the state.

“We're looking at registration fees, we're looking at the fuel usage fee, other ways to help people save a little bit at the pump, a little bit when it comes to transportation because we know that's a pressure point right now,” Garnett said.

Garnett says the state does not have control over many of the cost increases, such as inflation or gas prices. However, he insists lawmakers are doing what they can where they can to help.

In January, Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers hosted a press conference to discuss their plans to cut costs. One proposal was to delay the implementation of fees that were put into statute with last year’s transportation bill, SB21-260.

Those fees will apply to rideshares, gasoline and delivery services, among other things, and they are set to start going into effect beginning in July.

“When families are struggling to keep up with costs, now is not the time for the gas tax to keep up with inflation,” Polis said during that January press conference. “Let's show people relief at the pump, especially with gas $3.80 a gallon or more.”

In total, Garnett says the legislature is working to save people $100 million this legislative session.

The potential fee delay from SB-260 is a quick about-face for Democrats, who just last year pushed for the fees. Republicans like Sen. Ray Scott, R-Mesa, say last year’s law didn’t project this year’s financial troubles.

“We have all these different enterprises that were set up for more fees, more tax increases to the citizens, but then we have things in our world economy that change everything. So now we're back in a position saying was it realistic? Did it really makes any sense?” Scott said.

Scott also question whether now is the time to be diverting funding and focus away from roads and bridges to climate change initiatives, saying that everyone wants to keep Colorado’s air and water clean but people are going through tough times and greenhouse gas reduction can’t fall on Colorado alone.

Republicans say they are also committed to saving people money, however there is a balance that must be struck.

Scott says he would like to see the state introduce and pass a bill to stave off the state’s 22 cent gas tax for one year to save people money at the pump, but says he’s not sure there’s an appetite for it.

Scott says both sides of the aisle have been working for decades to try to fix the state’s transportation issue and he doesn’t want to lose sight of that. He’s looking for a middle road to both cut costs in the short-term without compromising long-term transportation priorities.

“We need to kind of set aside those partisan arguments, if you will, and have a real discussion, make some real sense out of exactly what we can do for immediate fixes and long-term fixes,” Scott said.

Saving people money in the short-term while preparing for long-term transportation needs is a difficult tightrope for legislators to walk, but one both sides of the aisle say they are trying to manage for the sake of consumers.

Keep in mind the Keep Colorado Wild pass will kick in beginning next January. That will add an additional $29 to the vehicle registration cost but offer free admission to all state parks. The money will help with conservation efforts. Drivers can opt-out of the pass.