Our view: Highway roadblock ahead
May 2, 2017
The Colorado State Senate’s Finance Committee struck down a bipartisan bill that would have asked voters to approve a sales tax increase to fund transportation.
Given the urgency of the state’s road needs, voters should at least have been allowed to weigh in on the issue.
It's said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Today, that old saw might aptly be repurposed to read, GOP lawmakers fiddle while Colorado's roads crumble.
The Colorado State Senate's Finance Committee struck down a bipartisan bill that would have asked voters to approve a sales tax increase to fund transportation.
Given the urgency of the state's road needs, voters should at least have been allowed to weigh in on the issue.
We refer, of course, to the unceremonious demise last week of House Bill 17-1242, which would have asked voters to approve or reject a plan to raise billions of dollars in transportation funds through the next 20 years by way of a .5 percent increase in the state's sales tax.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran, joined by Republican State Sen. Randy Baumgardner and Democratic State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, the latter of whom chair the transportation committees in their respective chambers.
In addition to increasing transportation funding by some $677 million annually, the issue proposed by the bill — had it been approved by voters in November — would also have redirected $50 million in existing revenue to roads and reduced vehicle registration fees by about $75 million per year.
But now, thanks to three Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee — namely Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and State Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial — Colorado voters may not get the opportunity to cast a ballot on the future of their own road system.
The bill, which, after numerous compromises, had garnered broad support on both sides of the aisle and won bipartisan approval in the House, died in the Senate Finance Committee, where the three aforementioned state senators apparently decided that Colorado voters really didn't need a say in the safety and soundness of the roads upon which they must travel day in and day out.
And make no mistake: The safety and soundness of our roads is an issue, and an urgent one.
No one who's ever driven Interstate 70 during a late-night spring snowstorm — or, indeed, at high noon on a cloudless summer day — needs to be told that Colorado's highways are a mess. And while that statement may be anecdotal, the numbers support its validity. Colorado currently faces a $500 million annual budgetary shortfall in transportation funding, and Baumgardner said late last year that the state is falling $1 billion farther into the hole each year in terms of deferred transportation needs.
Perhaps a sales tax isn't the right answer. Perhaps there are, as Sens. Neville, Hill and Tate insist, better ways to ensure a steady, reliable revenue stream to service the bonds we need to keep our highways modern, adequate and safe — an increase in the gasoline tax, the addition of toll roads, an increase in licensing fees, to name a few — and we're not opposed to taking a look at these and other options.
But the three Republican naysayers proposed no viable options; they simply knocked down the bill with the feeble GOP boilerplate position that any tax increase is inherently evil — even one approved by the majority of the people who would be paying it.
We hesitate to say Neville, Hill and Tate killed the legislation in a pandering nod to their respective bases, but it's difficult to see the partisan defeat of a bipartisan bill — especially one that might have benefitted so many — as anything else.
Following the committee's defeat of HB 17-1242, Grantham offered assurances that he remains committed to finding a way to fund our urgent highway needs, even saying a ballot measure is still not out of the question.
We sincerely hope that's the case, for while we are not yet prepared to endorse a new sales tax, we are convinced that — given the obvious safety concerns associated with our deteriorating road system — the voters of Colorado should, at the very least, have been given the opportunity to consider the plan and cast a “yes” or “no” vote.