Coloradans have rejected statewide tax questions to pay for badly needed road improvements and repairs in back-to-back years, most recently earlier this month with Proposition CC.
But Democrats are still driven to find a long-term funding pipeline to address problems like crumbling infrastructure and congestion. While their preference remains to find a catch-all fix — likely by persuading voters to sign off on either increased sales or gas taxes — some lawmakers say it might be time to face political reality and pursue a Plan B.
The backup idea is to tackle tax hikes for transportation funding regionally, or even hyper-locally, allowing communities that are willing to pay for roads to do so if the rest of the state is unwilling or unready. There are models already in place — the Colorado Springs area is an example of how the targeted approach can work — and the proposals currently under consideration rely on the 2020 legislature making them easier and quicker to replicate.
“Frankly, every attempt we’ve made to find sustainable transportation revenue on a statewide level has not been successful thus far,” said state Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat. “There are some folks who are ready to leave the state behind right now. … I would much rather have a statewide solution, but something needs to change for the likelihood of that occurring.”
Republican legislative minorities expressed immediate skepticism, pointing out that there is already a $2.56 billion transportation bonding question slated to go before Colorado voters next year and saying that the Democrats’ approach could leave rural areas behind. They also see the regional taxation idea as another attempt to avoid doing what Republicans have long said the legislature needs to do: limit spending in other areas to put more existing tax revenue toward transportation.
“I think it’s a backhanded way of going around what the voters have already decided,” said state Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican who has worked on transportation funding at the Capitol. “I’m against really any statewide tax increase because I think the legislature has to have some skin in the game.”
But state Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, said the regional solution is one that local governments have begun calling for. She said there is a “pretty strong” chance that a proposal could go before lawmakers when the 2020 legislative session begins in January and draft legislation has been put together.
The debate comes after Proposition CC, which would have eliminated state spending caps and sent $116 million toward transportation, failed on Nov. 5. In 2018, voters rejected Proposition 110, which called for a 0.62% state sales tax hike. Republicans pushed back vehemently against both.
Voters in just five of Colorado’s 64 counties — Denver, Boulder, Summit, Pitkin and San Miguel — approved Proposition 110 in 2018, which failed by a 60-40 margin statewide. Prop. CC, meanwhile, failed in all but Denver, Broomfield, Boulder, Routt, Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Gunnison, Ouray, San Miguel, San Juan and La Plata counties.
“You have two sides that have drawn lines in the sand and this is one of the very few solutions that meet both views,” Winter said. “If there is a way to infuse the system with badly needed funding, then we need to look at those solutions.”
Under a 1997 law, Colorado counties, cities and towns can already form regional transportation authorities to tax voters to pay for roads. But they can be difficult to put together because they require agreement from all of the different local governments involved, which could be part of the reason there are so few of them.
One of the ideas being floated by Gray and Winter would give existing metropolitan transportation organizations, like the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the ability to ask voters to approve regional road-funding taxes.
That would likely make it easier and faster to put something on the ballot since the organizations already have boards and don’t need agreement across many different local governments to form.
There are also hyper-local solutions that could be explored to address specific transportation needs, like creating a taxing district to fix a troublesome bridge or problematic intersection.
“There’s a lot of different ways that you could go,” Gray said.
Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew didn’t immediately reject the idea when asked last week, saying they are committed, generally, to working with lawmakers to find a long-term transportation funding solution.
Colorado Springs City Councilman Wayne Williams, a Republican, says the regional approach has worked well in his community, but he doesn’t think the legislature should follow suit on a statewide level.
In 2004, voters in El Paso County formed the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, which includes unincorporated areas, Colorado Springs, Ramah, Manitou Springs and Green Mountain Falls. The authority was authorized to collect a 1% sales tax to pay for capital projects, maintenance and transit.
In 2012, voters by a wide margin approved the regional transportation authority’s request to continue the 0.55% portion of the tax to pay for capital projects, which was due to expire in 2014, until 2024.
“In El Paso County, which last I checked is still reasonably conservative, it passed with 79% of the vote,” he said of the latter vote.
Williams, who helped form the authority, thinks the success was born out of making sure that voters know about the specific projects their tax dollars are paying for and because of trust with local officials. The authority’s slogan is “promises made, promises kept.”
That’s what Winter and Gray are hoping to tap into.
“I come from local government,” Winter said. “I was on city council for seven years. I have seen the difference in trust that voters have for local government versus state government.”
But Williams, Colorado’s former secretary of state, opposes abandoning a statewide approach.
“Voters will vote for a transportation issue if you do it right,” Williams said. “The problem is the state has yet to do it right. I think their conclusion that you can only do regional ones isn’t accurate. To say that, ‘I can’t pass the test because I keep putting the wrong answer,’ is wrong.”
Besides, he argues, large swaths of the state would likely be left out under a regional plan. Williams thinks that Colorado communities, once they take care of their corner of the state, won’t be willing to pitch in to pay for needs in parts of the state with smaller tax bases.
Winter and Gray say they don’t want to leave rural areas of the state behind, but they’re unwilling to go another year without a way to pay for transportation funding.
“If the same ideological opposition gathers to any new transportation revenue, we’re running out of ways to tell local communities they can’t act on their own,” Gray said.
Winter echoed that sentiment. “We have to be as creative as possible and put all solutions on the table,” she said. “No solution is going to be perfect, but we at least deserve to have a robust discussion about it.”
Updated on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, at 9 a.m.: This story was updated to clarify that in 2012 voters approved the regional transportation authority’s request to continue the 0.55% portion of its 1% tax to pay for capital projects, which was due to expire in 2014, until 2024.
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