Road Warriors

Boon or boondoggle, Bill Owens's highway plan has to get past Douglas Bruce before it goes anywhere.

Douglas Bruce doesn't do mellow.

Squaring off against a room full of legislators and lobbyists, the anti-tax activist is a study in petulance. He frowns at the testimony of his opponents. He passes urgent notes to Legislative Council staffers, leaves his seat to whisper to a state senator, sits down and fidgets with his glasses. Irritation, both giving and receiving, seems to be Bruce's lot in life, but this arduous wrangling over a few sentences in a public document threatens to transport him to new heights of exasperation.

"I don't want to sue anybody," Bruce says, when it's his turn to address the council. But there is a rumble of frustration in his voice that suggests he's going to do exactly that if things don't get straightened out in a hurry. Can't these people see that they're forcing him to go after them?

Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).
Brett Amole
Debt and taxes: Bruce debates the highway plan with TRANS campaign manager Dick Wadhams (left) for a television program hosted by Jon Caldara (center).

Bruce has come to today's hearing in the basement of the State Capitol for a showdown over the blue book, the state-funded pamphlet mailed out to 1.5 million households across the state every fall to inform voters of upcoming ballot questions. This year's version contains only one proposal, but it's a whopper. If approved, Referendum A would allow the state to borrow up to $1.7 billion -- and repay a total debt of $2.3 billion (including $600 million or more in interest) out of future federal funding -- to help finance two dozen high-priority highway projects, including expansion of I-25 through southeast Denver to Douglas County, the most congested stretch of freeway in the state.

The blue book is supposed to offer an impartial analysis of arguments for and against the proposal. But that's not easy in the matter of Referendum A -- or TRANS, short for Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes, the type of bonds that would be issued. The measure enjoys lopsided support among the powers that be. Governor Bill Owens staked his campaign last fall on a pledge to fix the I-25 traffic mess without raising taxes, and TRANS is his baby ("The Road to Trouble," May 13). Many members of the Legislative Council are solidly behind it, too, including the panel's chair, Ray Powers, president of the state senate and a principal sponsor of the bill that created the proposal.

Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment and the state's leading scourge of bloated government projects, opposes the measure. Over the past few weeks he's submitted more than a hundred proposed changes to the blue book, challenging the assertions by the pro-TRANS camp and beefing up the arguments against the scheme. The council's nonpartisan staff adopted many of his suggestions. But as the five-hour hearing winds down, the Legislative Council sets about trimming Bruce's additions, wiping out scary words and phrases like debtand default, deficit spending and eventual tax increase. As he sees it, the supposedly fair and unbiased blue-book process is being "hijacked" by politicians under his very nose.

"The key argument against this proposal is that it's a debt proposal," Bruce patiently explains to the panel, as if correcting schoolchildren. "Why can't I have as one of the arguments that government debt is a bad idea? Thomas Jefferson thought so."

His voice dripping with sarcasm, Bruce points out that not only does borrowing billions fly in the face of the TABOR amendment's strict cap on government spending, but the proposal contains a hidden "slush fund." The bond money could potentially earn millions of dollars in interest before it's spent on the highway projects, and nothing in Powers's bill designates that the interest money must be spent on roads.

"Absolutely not true," counters transportation chief Tom Norton, who breezes in to the hearing to reassure legislators. "Everything that's in the bill has to be used for transportation projects."

Bruce insists that the panel summon Sharon Eubanks, the legislative attorney who actually drafted the bill. Eubanks says that the interest income is specifically exempted from the TABOR limits and isn't designated. Powers says the loophole can be fixed in the next legislative session, but score one for the taxpayer advocate. Norton is wrong. Bruce is right.

Yet no matter how many problems Bruce exposes in the financing plan -- and by his count, they are legion -- he still can't avoid being home-teamed by the TRANS-friendly lawmakers. Englewood senator Tom Blickensderfer even suggests scrapping an entirely accurate chart of soaring road spending over the past six years in the interest of "trying to get people to think positively about this referendum." An adulterated blue book, robbed of the pungent anti-TRANS arguments Bruce had fought to include, passes by an 11-1 vote.

"That was not one of the finer moments of the legislature," says Senator Mike Feeley, the Democratic minority leader, who had to leave the hearing before the final vote. "People's preconceptions and dislike of Doug Bruce got in the way of an objective analysis."

Powers, whom Bruce challenged unsuccessfully for his Colorado Springs-based Senate seat in 1996, denies that the process was skewed. "I'm very familiar with Mr. Bruce," he says dryly. "We have not been the best of friends. But I felt we treated him very fairly. We certainly have a right of opinion."

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