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Colorado lawmakers inch forward on transportation deal as gas tax hike becomes political touch point

Americans for Prosperity is launching ads at gas station pumps and sending mailers criticizing lawmakers for overspending tax dollars

Traffic on westbound Interstate 70 at Floyd Hill in August 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Behind the scenes at the Capitol, in private meetings and hushed conversations, Colorado lawmakers are talking about how to find a legislative unicorn: a bipartisan deal to find more money for transportation.

The negotiations started at an impasse, only adding to the frustration felt by the advocates behind three failed prior election campaigns, but began slowly as both parties recognize it remains top concern with voters.

This story originally appeared in The Unaffiliated, the political newsletter from The Colorado Sun. Subscribe here to get exclusive Colorado political news and analysis first.

Democratic House Speaker KC Becker, a lead negotiator, said the new talks are progressing and she’s “encouraged by the initial willingness to put together sort of a bipartisan package.” But she acknowledges the deal is far from reality — and the political risks are significant.

“All things are on the table right now, but what I think realistically can get done is probably of a much more limited nature,” the Boulder lawmaker said in an interview.

The conversation became a little more tense this week as a conservative political group began an aggressive campaign to push back on one of the ideas at the center of the debate: an increase in the state’s 22-cent gas tax.

Americans for Prosperity’s Colorado chapter is airing 15-second commercials on screens at gas pumps in the Denver area that urge people to tell lawmakers that “Colorado families can’t afford to pay more at the pump.”

The advocacy effort also includes mailers targeting key lawmakers, online ads and radio commercials. It was first reported Tuesday in The Unaffiliated, the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun. The five-figure initial cost for the campaign is modest, but the effort serves as a warning shot to the negotiators at the state Capitol and the group’s spending could increase. 

“People need to voice their opinions now on this if they really want to impact such an important issue down at the Capitol,” said Jesse Mallory, the organization’s state director.

AFP — which is backed by billionaire Charles Koch — fought against prior efforts to increase taxes to generate money for transportation. The group argues that Colorado lawmakers are spending too much money and should prioritize road construction above other needs.

The advertising suggests that lawmakers want to repeal the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and eliminate the requirement that voters approve tax hikes, but the effort to revamp TABOR is actually coming from liberal organizations outside the building.

Becker, who is one of the lawmakers targeted by the mailers, confirmed that new taxes or fees are part of the current discussion about a transportation spending bill. The main revenue source for road projects is the gas tax, but it has remained stagnant for nearly three decades and is a diminishing source of revenue.

“There’s some level of agreement that there has to be some new source of revenue,” she said. “Exactly what that is going to be is still in the works.”

In addition to the gas tax, lawmakers are also discussing additional fees on electric vehicles based and ride-sharing, as well as earmarking existing tax dollars for roads and transit needs. 

MORE: Colorado is spending record sums on transportation. But state highways are getting less.

The politics of a tax or fee hike are unpredictable. Sen. Chris Holbert, the Republican leader, doesn’t support an increase in the gas tax and would rather see at least $300 million in existing revenue put toward road construction. But he has acknowledged there could be an appetite. 

“There are Republicans, there are conservatives, who have the perspective that if you’re going to ask me for money, ask me for it the right way. And the gas tax pays for transportation,” the Parker lawmaker said.

Still, Holbert said Democratic efforts to increase fees or taxes would backfire and result in big GOP wins in the November election. Becker said she agrees that there is a political risk, but she clarified later: “I don’t think it means we should back away from trying to do something.”

One other transportation funding model proposed this year is House Bill 1151 to allow local governments to create regional districts to raise money for their specific projects. 

But it also faces political opposition — in this case from Gov. Jared Polis. At a recent event, he said lawmakers should not create a solution “that only works for urban Colorado and suburban Colorado.”

“That’s not the best way for the state from a business perspective,” Polis added, saying it limits interconnectivity.

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