Legislators at the Capitol have been wheeling and dealing since the first day of session on what some have called the largest transportation funding bill in the state's history, and last night, they finally made it past the finish line.
On Tuesday, both chambers approved a bill that would pour nearly $3 billion into the state's highway, local and multimodal transportation infrastructure and alleviate a $9 billion backlog in road projects at the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"This is significant. When we get to look back on this endeavor and what happened in the 2018 legislative session, this is what I'm going to remember," says Senate President Kevin Grantham. "This is a win for our constituents. This is a win for Colorado."
The transportation funding bill was, by most accounts, the top priority this session, along with education funding and pension reform. The bill was introduced in the Senate on the very first day of session on January 10 and has since gone through multiple iterations with each committee and floor vote. The most notable change was the House version's cut in bonded funding for the bill; the Senate initially approved $3.5 billion in bonding back in March, but the House cut that amount to $2.34 billion. That change was part of a bipartisan deal made by leaders in both chambers.
While the bill would drop bonding by a billion dollars, two lump-sum cash payments totaling $645 million would be paid out this year and in 2019 to accelerate CDOT's top-priority projects.
“We have said from the beginning of the session that transportation is a top priority for the House Democrats, and this proposal delivers without putting education spending at risk,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran in a statement. “For years, the issue of transportation funding has been a challenge for the legislature. This year we have a solution.”
Even though the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, several Republican members of the House testified that the bill didn't do enough to fund transportation, and there was frustration with a provision in the bill that delays bond spending until after November 2019.
Ironically, House Democrats argued that for the sake of fiscal responsibility, having less of a stake in the bond market will make a recession easier to manage.
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"If you dive too deep into the bond market, you have to repay those bonds over twenty years come hell or high water. Unless you want to see your credit rating crash, you will not default on those bonds," says Dean Toda, communications director for the Colorado House Democrats, adding that during the Great Recession, the state was so strapped for cash that it had to institute deep budget cuts to education and even furlough prisoners because the state couldn't afford to keep them incarcerated. "The problem is, the Colorado economy is doing great right now, but there will come a recession. ... There were a lot of draconian budget cuts [in 2009] because Colorado's economy wasn't firing on all cylinders. If, on top of that, we're heavily into the bond market or heavily repaying these debts, that makes these cuts to other aspects of the state budget all the more severe."
The bill requires a ballot initiative in November of this year or 2019 to initiate the transportation bond but leaves the opportunity for outside interests to push for an initiative. If transportation funding doesn't pass this year, the state will submit a ballot initiative to support the bonds in 2019.
If Coloradans vote down all transportation bond initiatives, the cash payments totaling $645 million will still be in place and the state will allocate $50 million a year for the next twenty years to try and close the ever-widening transportation funding gap.
The Independence Institute is circulating a transportation ballot initiative dubbed "Fix Our Damn Roads" that would require the state to bond $3.5 billion for 66 specified road and bridge projects without a tax increase. A breakdown of the projects can be found in this fiscal note. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has five ballot measures — none of which has yet been approved by the Colorado Title Board for circulation by petition — that would include a sales-tax increase of between 0.35 to 1 percent and would include bonding of anywhere from $3.72 billion to $9 billion, depending on which version of the initiative the group decides to circulate.