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A Mountain Metro Transit bus heads north on South Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs Monday, December 3, 2018. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado General Assembly convenes Wednesday at a familiar impasse about how to improve the state’s roads and reduce traffic congestion – one that appears headed for more political theatrics this session.

The Democratic majority is reiterating their position that new revenue through taxes or fees is required to meet the state’s roughly $9 billion in needs for road construction and transit. The Republicans in the minority want to tap existing tax dollars, not new ones.

On the eve of the 120-day lawmaking term, the entrenched positions led to a testy exchange between leaders in the two parties Tuesday at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative preview event.

“We need to focus on real solutions, which, quite frankly, that’s pavement, that’s not extra pogo stick lanes or bike lanes that are just adding to the gridlock of the state,” said House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

The barb – directed at Democrats who are focused on transit options beyond cars – made it clear that Republicans plan to draw a firm line once again on transportation. A year ago, Republicans in the Senate used procedural delay tactics to force the Democratic majority into putting more money from discretionary spending toward transportation, part of an effort that brought lawmaking to a temporary halt.

MORE: Colorado’s 2020 legislative session begins this week. Here’s a rundown of 10 issues to watch.

Democratic House Speaker KC Becker expressed frustration that Republicans appeared unwilling to reach a compromise on the issue. She said that lawmakers pulled $550 million in discretionary spending from the general fund for transportation during the 2019 session. But it meant less money for other areas, including education and health care programs.

“That can’t happen every year, so we have to come up with new revenue,” the Boulder lawmaker said. She added: “It has to be new revenue, it can’t come from the general fund – we aren’t going to cut Medicaid spending to fund roads. It’s just not going to happen.”

Proposition CC punts transportation conversation back to Capitol

The failure of Proposition CC on the 2019 ballot is only adding to the tension on the issue. Becker led the charge to use surplus state tax revenues for transportation and education but it didn’t win support from voters amid a big-dollar campaign from national conservative organizations.

To move forward, Becker implored the business community to take the lead where the two parties failed. “We can’t get the perfect. We have to collaborate and all come together and have broad support in the business community working together,” she said.

State legislative leaders speak on a panel at a forum event hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 7, 2020, ahead of the session. (Provided by Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce)

Republican leaders see a more immediate solution: another major infusion of cash in next year’s state budget from the general fund. Neville and state Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, suggested that lawmakers should keep spending $300 million for roads in the next budget. 

“We have everything else on the budget on autopilot year after year except for transportation. It always ends up on the back burner and it’s time we brought it to the front burner,” Neville said.

“That’s just not true,” Becker fired back, restating her argument that new revenue was needed because the recent spending on transportation is not sustainable. Among her suggestions was increasing the state’s gas tax, which has been 22 cents per gallon since 1992.

An opening for a compromise and a little bit of hope

Other states, no matter the party in power, have increased the gas tax to boost money for roads. But GOP leaders in Colorado rejected the idea outright, saying it would burden families who are struggling with the high cost of living. And Democrats acknowledge it’s not a long-term solution as vehicles become more fuel efficient.

MORE: “I’m absolutely not supportive of that”: Front Range passenger train service appears derailed on arrival at Capitol

Cooke, the assistant Republican leader in the Senate, said one fee he would support increasing is the $50 surcharge on electric vehicles. He also wants to repeal the tax break for electric vehicle purchases.

Democratic state Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, is developing legislation to raise the electric vehicle fee – possibly even doubling it – but he said it wouldn’t generate enough money for roads. Instead, he argued, a bigger package that increases a variety of fees is needed to make a dent — one that Republicans view with skepticism.

“We will take our best shot” to find a solution, Hansen said in an interview. “A package means both sides are going to have to give — that’s how good policy is made.”

Kelly Brough, the president of the Denver Chamber, which supported Prop. CC, said she is optimistic because lawmakers from both parties are focused on the issue. But at the same time, she acknowledged the political gridlock is grim. “We are falling behind,” she said. “It’s affecting safety and our quality of life.”

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15

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