Colorado Democrats want to delay implementation of a new 2-cent-per-gallon gas fee, but only until two months after the November election.
House Bill 1351, the cornerstone of Gov. Jared Polis’ work this year to slash the cost of living in Colorado, would cost $28 million as the legislature backfills the lost revenue. The measure also calls for reducing the state’s vehicle registration surcharge fee at a cost of $35 million.
“It’s important for us to give relief to our constituents and to Coloradans who, over the course of the last few months, have seen a very significant increase in gas prices,” said state Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat.
Gas cost an average of $3.94 per gallon in Colorado on Tuesday, according to AAA, up more than a dollar from a year ago.
The legislation is part of a $157 million fee-relief package being pushed by Democrats in the legislature this year. Critics, mainly business groups and Republicans, have said the relief is too small and point out that Democrats are offering breaks on programs that they passed and pushed for.
The new gas fee, which is slated to begin July 1, was enacted through Senate Bill 260, a major transportation funding bill passed by the legislature in 2020 and signed into law by Polis. The measure will raise billions of dollars for transportation projects and also enact fees on deliveries and Uber and Lyft rides.
The Unaffiliated is our twice-weekly newsletter on Colorado politics and policy.
Each edition is filled with exclusive news, analysis and other behind-the-scenes information you won’t find anywhere else. Subscribe today to see what all the buzz is about.
The legislation had limited GOP support, and conservative groups and activists are now suing to invalidate the measure. House Bill 1351 would push back the fee’s start date by six months to January 2023.
The relief package comes amid rising election-year pressure by Republicans on Polis, who is seeking a second term, and Democrats over the rising cost of living, especially increasing gas prices.
The GOP has invoked higher prices at the pump in campaign ads and on the campaign trail.
President Joe Biden was in Iowa on Tuesday to announce that he’s trying to reduce gas prices by about 10 cents per gallon at some gas stations by planning, through his administration, an emergency waiver to allow widespread sale of a 15% ethanol blend that is usually prohibited between June 1 and Sept. 15 because of concerns that it adds to smog in high temperatures.
Polis has urged Congress to suspend the federal gas tax and his spokesman says the governor supports “any efforts to reduce state fees on gas as long as road funding is backfilled from other sources.” The Democrat has also criticized the oil and gas industry for not using all of their permits in Colorado.
But House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, said the measure is all politics. He called it “just part and parcel of the bill of goods that the people of Colorado have been sold.”
Roberts said the timing of the relief in House Bill 1351 and the upcoming election “wasn’t necessarily related.”
“For me,” Roberts said, “it’s about what I’m hearing from my constituents.”
The $63 million cost of House Bill 1351 will be deducted from counting toward the state’s cap on government growth and spending under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which is expected to be exceeded by as much as $2 billion in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. That means the legislature is essentially using House Bill 1351 to decide how to spend the $63 million instead of it being sent back to taxpayers through the TABOR refund process, which can include an income tax cut and direct-to-taxpayer checks.
Roberts defended the plan as beneficial to Coloradans, especially those in rural parts of the state like the mountain communities he represents.
“We delayed it as long as we could with the funding that’s available to fill in the loss in revenue,” Roberts said. “I’m open to pushing it out even further. We wanted to get the bill introduced and I think the conversations with the Joint Budget Committee are ongoing.”
The JBC, however, doesn’t appear amenable to stretching the delay period.
“We have not discussed that,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and vice chair of the powerful panel.
House Bill 1351, which is also sponsored by Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango, was introduced March 31 without fanfare. Its legislative declaration notes that gas price increases in Colorado have come in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Polis was pushing for the gas-fee relief as early as last year.
A gallon of gas cost an average of $3.34 per gallon in Colorado on Feb. 15, according to AAA, which was before the war in Ukraine began. On April 12, 2021, the cost was $2.90.
“I’m not putting it solely on Ukraine,” Roberts said, “but it certainly is part of the situation.”
House Bill 1351 is scheduled to get its first committee hearing on Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.