Prospects fading for tax increase to fund Colorado transportation solution
A proposal to raise money for transportation infrastructure appears to have crashed in the Legislature as supporters scramble to secure the votes needed to keep the bill moving.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, a sponsor of the centerpiece transportation funding effort, acknowledged that he has struggled to convince his caucus to support the measure.
"The reality is at this point we can't count to three," Grantham said, highlighting the votes needed in the Republican-controlled Senate to advance the measure out of the Senate Finance Committee.
House Bill 1242 is scheduled to be heard in the Finance Committee on April 25. The bill advanced out of the Senate Transportation Committee after passing the House.
"What we couldn't figure out in the last five months, we have to figure out in the next five days," Grantham said.
The legislation - which would have to be approved by voters - calls for a 0.50 percent sales tax increase to raise money for a $3.5 billion bonding program for roads. That figure is down from 0.62 percent, which was the original proposal.
"No matter how you slice it, this comes down to a sales tax increase, and I'm not sure what ornament we can hang on this tree that will make that not as important as it is," Grantham said.
Supporters of the effort were hoping that Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial would be the swing vote to push the measure through. But Tate has made it clear to Grantham that he will not be supporting the transportation measure in its current form.
"We should exhaust better options first," Tate said.
He supports a separate troubled effort to restructure the Hospital Provider Fee while lowering the cap on state spending to more easily trigger taxpayer rebates. Restructuring the fee would free money for roads and highways in the short term.
"That's a much better option. I would prefer to see that bill pass and then after we've exhausted that option . at some subsequent time we can talk about what else can happen," Tate said.
For Republicans, a sales tax increase is a tough pill to swallow. Critics of the transportation funding measure would like to see a better prioritization of federal and state funds, bonding and a lowering of the state spending limit.
"After we trim the hedges and mow the grass, we can look at doing some more landscaping," Tate said. "I'm not going to be supporting a tax increase unless we've done the other things that we can do first."
But Grantham pointed out that without a tax increase, it would be difficult to replace the revenue needed to support improvements for roads and highways. He said he has had a difficult time separating the transportation talks from Hospital Provider Fee negotiations.
House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, who is sponsoring the transportation funding bill with Grantham, assailed Republicans who are opposing the effort over ideological concerns.
Holding a long scroll listing the names of organizations that support the transportation funding effort, Duran asked how opponents can "turn their backs on all these people."
"They're turning their backs on all of these different people from across the state of Colorado that represent the rural, the urban, the suburban areas of our state. They are turning their backs on leaders at the local level, Republicans and Democrats. ... They're turning their backs on everyone who said, 'My goodness, with all the roads in the state of Colorado, we need to be able to come up with a transportation plan for future generations and to preserve the quality of life that we have in this state.'"
A group of stakeholders is working on another legislative effort that would restart the transportation funding process from scratch with less than three weeks left in the session.
Failure to act would be a major failure for legislative leaders, who spoke of transportation funding as a priority at the start of the session in January. If lawmakers fail to come up with a solution for voters to approve, then ballot initiatives are likely to surface from outside the Capitol. Several initiatives have already been filed.
"We will have another year in the Assembly. We'll come back next year if we don't do anything in the next 15 working days. We'll keep trying," Grantham said. "However, I can almost guarantee you that this November there will be measures on the ballot."