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Traffic on Broadway in Downtown Denver in October 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Worried about asking voters for too much money in November, Democratic leaders are moving to withdraw a $2.3 billion transportation measure from the 2019 ballot.

A bipartisan bill expected to debut Friday would delay the ballot question until 2020 and reduce the size of transportation bonds issued.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, the measure’s sponsor, told The Colorado Sun that a “one-year timeout” is needed to avoid a collision with another ballot question in November asking voters to end the state’s spending caps and direct a third of the additional revenue to transportation.

MORE: Coloradans may face 4 spending questions this year. Will new nicotine tax measure overload the ballot?

The Arvada Democrat and budget writer pointed to the 2018 ballot, where two competing measures to generate new dollars for transportation both failed.

“We don’t want to continue putting up measures that we know are doomed to fail if we want to make progress on transportation,” Zenzinger said in an interview.

The last-minute move comes amid concerns that Democrats are overloading the ballot with the introduction earlier this week of a measure to raise nicotine and tobacco taxes. The party’s legislative leaders already want to ask voters to legalize and tax sports betting and remove the spending caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

All three measures — which are backed by Gov. Jared Polis — are pending final approval as the legislative session nears its end. The General Assembly must adjourn May 3 by midnight.

Colorado state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, left, talks to Rep. Brianna Titone on the opening day of the legislative session Jan. 4, 2019, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

How we got here: It started with a big deal in 2018  

Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to the $2.3 billion bond package for transportation as part of a grand compromise in the 2018 legislative session to address the state’s inadequate mass transit system and crumbling roads. Colorado estimates its transportation needs at $9 billion.

As part of the compromise, the 2018 legislation set the bond referendum for the 2019 election. The timing allowed transportation advocates to ask voters in 2018 for a sales tax hike for road building. But that initiative failed — and so did a competing measure to issue bonds without raising taxes.

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, explored legislation earlier this year to cancel the 2019 ballot question outright.

“Voters spoke on this issue last election and they don’t want bonding without a new revenue source,” Becker said in a statement. “Moreover, if the measure goes forward this year it will delay existing funding from moving forward until after the vote, preventing shovel-ready projects from getting off the ground. We all have a shared interest in getting transportation projects going.”

Zenzinger, a key author of the 2018 deal, said trying to cancel the $2.3 billion bond — despite bipartisan support a year earlier — would have been “contentious and it would have slowed down the debate on the floor” this session.

How the new legislation would work

The forthcoming bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican budget writer, would maintain a $50 million annual earmark for transportation in the state budget beginning in fiscal year 2020 and potentially continuing for 20 years.

The delay also allows the state to continue using lease-purchase agreements on state-owned property to generate money for roads, which was part of the original 2018 legislation. The second installment is expected to generate $500 million this summer, but it likely would have been put on hold if the bonds went to the ballot in 2019.

Because the state is generating transportation dollars now, the total in bonds for the 2020 ballot would get reduced $500 million to $1.8 billion, Zenzinger said.

“I feel like it’s a smart move so we don’t sink any kind of future progress on transportation,” Zenzinger said. “We don’t want to stop the progress, and it just makes sense to take stock of reality.”

Rankin said he supports the delay because it continues the discussion about increasing transportation, a key priority for Republicans.

“We really have not had time this year to really talk about transportation and really to have a thorough discussion about what we should do,” the Carbondale lawmaker said. “Given that we haven’t come together I think this is a good alternative.”

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.