A group of business leaders Monday called on the Legislature to do something to make sure more tax dollars go into Colorado’s long-neglected transportation system.
At a Capitol press conference, they urged the passage of Senate Bill 1, which is pending in the House. The bill would obligate $250 million a year from the state budget to repay $3.5 billion in bonds for projects over 20 years.
Democrats, who hold a majority in the House, have signaled they will demand more money for local governments and transit than the Senate bill provides.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously on March 28. The House has not yet scheduled it for a committee hearing. If it’s amended, which is nearly certain, it would have to go to a joint House-and-Senate committee to work out a compromise for both chambers to vote on before the session ends on May 9.
In its current form, the legislation schedules a statewide vote in November 2019 to allow the state to borrow the money.
If lawmakers carve out the money from the state budget for transportation, however, it’s not clear how that would affect proposed ballot measures to raise sales taxes by up to 1 percent for transportation this November.
Otherwise, voters could decide transportation issues twice in successive years: to pass a sales tax this year and to borrow money next year, using money already earmarked in the state budget by the Legislature.
“I will tell you from the chamber’s point of view, I don’t believe the state has enough money to solve everything they need to solve,” said Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce
The state highway department has estimated it needs $20 billion to catch up with growth and keep up over the next two decades, but Colorado voters have proven reluctant to pass statewide taxes.
Leading a statewide coalition of business and elected leaders, the Denver chamber has filed paperwork on a handful of potential ballot questions this November, including one that would fund only municipal, county and multi-modal needs.
Brough said the coalition would have to make a decision about whether to proceed to the ballot, if lawmakers take the money from the budget.
“Bond questions are difficult on a statewide basis,” said Mike Kopp, former Colorado Senate Republican leader who is now president and CEO of the Colorado Concern business coalition.
Brough and Kopp said there is common ground among those who support differing proposals.
“One, is we want money for transportation and we strongly support Senate Bill 1 to help us get there,” she told reporters. “And, two, we’re right at the table to help continue to improve that bill.”
The business leaders said the jammed and neglected roads represent a cap on Colorado’s economic growth.
Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, said the bill represents progress on a long-overdue fix to fund transportation.
“We need to actually shift from neutral and put this into drive,” he said.
The business groups at Monday’s press conference have pushed for more transportation funding for years. Lawmakers widely agree that transportation is a priority, but Democrats and Republicans haven’t been able to agree on a solution.
There are plenty of transportation funding supporters on the left – albeit with a lean toward transit and alternative transportation methods, such as bike lanes – but they don’t want to see the state budget obligated with long-term debt.
While the state is flush with cash this year, in lean years the bonds would have to be repaid before providing money to schools and social services, they contend.
“Colorado keeps digging its fiscal hole deeper and that’s exactly what SB-1 does in its current form,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver. “It needlessly pre-programs future budgets and creating if/then scenarios for future legislatures.
“Of course, transportation should be a top priority and that’s why the legislature should make a historic one-time investment in transportation this session, and why we need to ask voters for a new, dedicated revenue stream for bonding this fall. Anything other approach is simply borrowing trouble for all the other needs this state has.”