DENVER - Democrats are pressing ahead with a $200 million highway bill despite a lack of GOP support so far.
Both sides say they're negotiating, but the bill passed two hearings last week without picking up a single Republican vote.
It could be up for a debate in the full Senate as early as this week, said the sponsor, Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne.
"We're continuing to talk," Gibbs said. "But we all felt that transportation is a very important topic that can't wait until the last week of the legislative session."
Leaders of both parties, including Gov. Bill Ritter, have pegged highway funding as a top priority for the Legislature this year. Supporters say a highway bill will achieve the twin goals of fixing unsafe bridges and putting people back to work.
The Colorado Department of Transportation says 126 of the state's bridges are structurally deficient and need to be fixed as soon as possible. The bill would raise more than $50 million in its first year for a special fund to fix the bridges, according to the Legislature's nonpartisan analysts. About $130 million would go to a road-maintenance fund.
The bill - Senate Bill 108 - raises money mostly through higher fees on auto registrations. But for Republicans, the main sticking point isn't the fees, said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.
Instead, Republicans don't like the creation of a new panel that could, at some point, put tolls on existing highways. They also are fighting a study of a mileage-based tax that would replace the gas tax. Participants in the voluntary study would put a global positioning system tracker in their cars to measure how far they drive.
"The tolling and the GPS tax have to go," Penry said.
Gibbs is willing to talk about removing the study.
"Everything is on the table - (the study) and everything else," Gibbs said. "However, the money is the kicker. We need money to take care of our 126 structurally deficient bridges," Gibbs said.
Penry says Republicans would prefer not to have any fee, but at this point they're just trying to make the fee as small as possible.
At the same time, GOP leaders in the highway bill negotiations are trying to get Democratic support for their bill to phase out the business personal property tax, Penry said. That bill is scheduled for its first hearing Feb. 9. Republicans will need several Democratic votes to get the bill through the Senate.
Democrats, on the other hand, have enough votes to pass the highway bill without GOP support. But for Gibbs, it hasn't always been easy to secure votes from his own party.
Gibbs, a mountain climber, compared his bill to climbing on a glacier with the aid of ladders.
"I'm seeing crevasses all over the place, whether it's on the Republican side or the Democratic side. I'm hoping I have enough ladders with me," he said.
He made a concession Thursday to fellow Democrat Jim Isgar of Hesperus, who got approval to cut the fee for farm vehicles in half.
"The rationale there is these vehicles don't get a lot of use. Some of them are barely on the road at all," Isgar said.
However, with about 70,000 registered farm vehicles in Colorado, the change will mean about $1 million in lower revenue, Gibbs said.
If the bill clears the Senate, it faces more debate in the House. So Gibbs expects more changes as negotiations continue.
"Heck yeah, it's going to change. It's going to dramatically change," Gibbs said.