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A construction sign advises of road work ahead in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver on Oct. 17, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

For the better part of the past 10 years, the question has left Colorado state policymakers paralyzed.

How should the state boost funding to transportation, when neither side can even agree on what the transportation grid should look like — much less how to pay for it?

This November, the question will be taken directly to the voters by advocacy groups on different sides that have lost patience with the legislature’s inability to endorse a lasting solution.

Fundamentally, the two ballot initiatives offer voters competing visions for how Colorado should make long-overdue upgrades to its transportation infrastructure.

Option 1: Proposition 109, which would require lawmakers to devote a bigger share of the existing budget to state highways — without raising new taxes.

Option 2: Proposition 110, which through a .62 percent state sales tax hike would fund not just major state arteries, but also local roads and alternate forms of transportation such as buses and trains.

MORE: A preview of Colorado’s 2018 ballot: Taxes, roads and an existential crisis for oil and gas

The two initiatives are ostensibly about transportation, but they’re also a proxy for virtually everything else that the state pays for with public dollars. More simply, this is a fight about how Colorado should spend its tax money.

To the political left, the conservative initiative with the snarky name — “Fix Our Damn Roads” — is an unfunded mandate to spend an extra $150 million a year on roads in good times and bad — to the detriment of other public services the next time there’s a recession. It’s viewed essentially as a future budget cut in disguise.

“It’s fix our damn roads, but it’s also break our damn schools (and) underfund our damn colleges,” says Scott Wasserman, head of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank that is campaigning against Proposition 109 and supports the tax hike in Proposition 110.

To the political right, it’s about properly funding the state’s priorities — and whether transportation should continue to fight for scraps from an $11 billion general fund that sends the lion’s share of the state’s tax dollars to schools and Medicaid. The proposition will tell lawmakers what to prioritize when it comes to spending tax dollars each year.

“For the last decade the state has refused to spend any real money on roads. We all know that because we’re stuck in traffic,” says Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, and the lead supporter of the measure. “At the same time, we have record surplus revenues coming in, and ‘Fix Our Damn Roads’ says let’s just take a fraction of all that excess revenue and put it toward fixing our damn roads.”

“A quiet crisis”

The legislature’s inability to agree on transportation funding has been one of the most enduring political stories of the past several years in Colorado politics.

There was ample warning of congestion ahead. A bipartisan blue ribbon commission assembled in 2007 by Gov. Bill Ritter called transportation a “quiet crisis,” predicting that booming population growth would lead to the ballooning commutes and growing maintenance backlogs that are now the status quo. Ten years later, the crisis is no longer quiet, but announced on a daily basis by honking horns on stressful slogs through bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Front Range and into the mountains.

Today, the Colorado Department of Transportation has an estimated $9 billion in needs over the next decade, and no clear plan to fund it, thanks to years of plummeting highway revenue and legislative inaction.

The state’s main revenue source for roads is a gas tax that was last increased to 22-cents per gallon in 1991. Today, Colorado has more cars on the road that are more fuel efficient and the tax generates less because inflation has steadily eaten away at what 22 cents can buy.

Colorado 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Just as Ritter and other state leaders tried to muster the political will to address it, the Great Recession hit and further squeezed a state budget that was already failing to keep up with growing needs.

Lawmakers haven’t been totally idle. In 2009, the legislature raised vehicle registration fees by $200 million a year, but it hasn’t generated nearly enough to offset the depleted value of the gas tax.

A year ago, House Democrats tried to send voters the option of raising sales taxes, but the measure died along party lines in a Senate committee, despite the support of the chamber’s Republican president.

This year, a Republican plan to issue transportation bonds eventually passed the divided legislature and was signed into law — but at only two-thirds the price tag initially proposed, and with a one-year delay to give voters a chance to consider the larger measures being offered this fall.

“Don’t tell me that the money’s not there” vs. “This is as good as it’s ever going to get”

It’s difficult in 2018 to make the argument that Colorado’s government is poor. Thanks to a booming economy and a tax windfall courtesy of Congress, the state coffers are so flush with cash today that lawmakers last session sent hundreds of millions in additional dollars to schools, roads and the public pension system; added to the state’s reserves; and still closed out the year with as much as $600 million leftover.

Against that backdrop, conservatives have accused opponents of Proposition 109 of utilizing “scare tactics” to make their case.

“Don’t tell me that the money’s not there,” said Caldara, who is leading the campaign in favor of 109. “But even if the money wasn’t there, we’re suggesting that the state reallocate less than 1 percent of its budget toward this core function of government, building roads. No one with a straight face could say that that would be impossible, even if we didn’t have all the surplus.”

MORE: Proposition 110: Everything you need to know about the Colorado ballot question

Still, Colorado’s stellar economy cuts both ways. The state is now bumping up against the revenue cap established by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and could owe upwards of $300 million in refunds to state taxpayers over the next two years, according to the latest revenue forecasts.

To those who support a tax hike, that side-effect of the financial boom underscores the limitations of the current budget. The state still hasn’t found the money to erase the $672 million debt it owes to K-12 schools each year, let alone reverse the deep cuts to higher education that have left students shouldering the bulk of the costs through fees and tuition.

TABOR, meanwhile, will only allow state spending to grow by the rate of inflation plus population growth, an amount that liberals say isn’t even enough to keep up with the growing costs of today’s public services, much less pay off the backlog of unmet needs leftover from the Great Recession.

“In essence this is as good as it’s ever going to get,” said Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, who is among the leaders of a wide-ranging coalition of business groups supporting a tax hike. “And what you realize is it’s not going to take us very far on a $9 billion project list” — let alone fund local roads or competing priorities such as K-12 schools and higher education.

“I think the business community, the thing we know is that you can’t just invest in one thing, and pretend that the other things don’t matter,” Brough said.

What projects would each proposition fund?

Of course, the differences don’t end at taxes. The ballot measures are vastly different in size and scope, offering voters philosophical choices between mass transit and cars, and whether or not to help pay for local projects. You can view a list of the proposed highway projects in Proposition 109 here and in Proposition 110 here, but the highlights are largely the same — the latter would just make a much bigger dent on the state’s priority list.

Here’s a breakdown of what each would do:

If neither passes there’s a third option — a smaller, $2.3 billion bonding measure referred by the state legislature would hit the ballot in 2019. It would earmark some funding for mass transit, but none for local governments. And the current trajectory of interest rates means it could cost a lot more to borrow by the time the bonds would actually be issued.

And if both pass?

No one’s quite sure what will happen, but it would likely fall to the courts, the legislature and the next administration to sort through how to implement them both.

But if that unlikely scenario played out, the message from voters would be crystal clear: fix the (expletive) roads — whatever the cost.

Rising Sun


    Brian Eason

    Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @brianeason