Editor's note: Transportation issues are top of mind for Coloradans, who will have two initiatives designed to improve the situation from which to choose when they vote in November: Proposition 109, popularly known as Fix Our Damn Roads, and Proposition 110, aka Let's Go Colorado. Here's more information about the former, the first to make the ballot.
Plenty of folks, including those backing Proposition 110, believe new taxes are necessary to fund the transportation projects so desperately needed to prevent Colorado roadways from turning into parking lots. But the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara, the man behind Proposition 109, isn't among them.
"Basically, voters will have a choice this year between Fix Our Damn Roads, which is a measure that says we will build specified road projects without any tax increase, or the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce's proposal [Let's Go Colorado], which basically says that you get mystery projects with a tax increase."
Caldara's pitch for Proposition 109 may seem confusing given the ballot title and submission clause approved by state officials. It reads:
SHALL STATE DEBT BE INCREASED $3,500,000,000, WITH A MAXIMUM REPAYMENT COST OF $5,200,000,000, WITHOUT RAISING TAXES OR FEES, BY A CHANGE TO THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES REQUIRING THE ISSUANCE OF TRANSPORTATION REVENUE ANTICIPATION NOTES, AND, IN CONNECTION THEREWITH, NOTE PROCEEDS SHALL BE RETAINED AS A VOTER-APPROVED REVENUE CHANGE AND USED EXCLUSIVELY TO FUND SPECIFIED ROAD AND BRIDGE EXPANSION, CONSTRUCTION, MAINTENANCE, AND REPAIR PROJECTS THROUGHOUT THE STATE?
Why would Colorado's debt go up by $3.5 billion if no taxes or fees are raised? Caldara's explanation is complicated, in that it involves federal tax cuts that he says will actually cost state residents more.
"People in Colorado are already going to get a sizable tax increase because of the changes under the new Trump tax code," he says. "When you do your state income tax, the very first line is taken from your federal income tax form. That's your total taxable income. Now, under the new Trump tax code, that number goes up quite a bit — but it's not a problem, because you apply a much lower tax rate to it. But that starting line on your state income taxes is going to be up a whole hell of a lot higher."
The reason, Caldara continues, is because "the legislature last session had the opportunity to lower our flat tax rate to make that revenue-neutral — and the state Senate voted to do just that. But the Democrat-controlled state House didn't pass it."
As a result, Caldara maintains, "you'll find out next April when you do your taxes that Coloradans will be paying a crap-ton more in state income taxes. In fact, the legislative council believes that in the next five years, it could grow to $900 million more a year. So what Fix Our Damn Roads says is, 'Let's spend that money fixing our damn roads rather than letting it get swallowed up into the abyss.' In other words, you're already paying a massive tax increase. Let's fix our roads with it."
This approach is necessary, Caldara believes, because it takes the decision-making process about how to use the money away from the state legislature, which he charges with letting the transportation scenario get out of hand and lacking the political will to improve it. Indeed, Caldara maintains that the state has for years had enough money to boost road-related funding but has chosen instead to fritter it away on what he considers to be nonsense.
"Let me put it this way," he begins. "We have enough money to give Harvey Weinstein $3 million to make a film [Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8 ] that doesn't even take place in Colorado, but we don't have money for roads. We have enough money to give rich white guys millions of dollars in cash to buy Teslas [via alternative-fuel vehicle tax credits], but we don't have money for roads. We have money for the Colorado Department of Transportation to buy a brand-new headquarters, but we don't have money for roads. We have money to have Bustang compete with Greyhound, but we don't have enough for roads. We have enough money to put one out of every four Coloradans on Medicaid expansion, but we don't have money for roads."
The list of additional examples Caldara provides is actually about twice as long as the paragraph above — but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, Caldara believes that Proposition 110 is based on "a regressive sales tax that will make the crony class of the Denver Chamber even more money. These are the people who gave us RTD's FasTracks, which was supposed to push people out of their cars into mass transit. But now they want even more money for roads. I find that delicious."
Another element of Fix Our Damn Roads that Caldara highlights is its transparency. The text of the measure, accessible below, "lists 65 projects we will use the money on," he notes, while Proposition 110 gives local officials the opportunity to advocate for the undertakings that make the most sense in each community — hence his previous reference to "mystery projects."
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The cost of the 65 projects highlighted by Proposition 109 exceeds the $3.5 billion the measure would raise, as Caldara readily admits. But, he says, "before we submitted Fix Our Damn Roads, the state legislature had already put up $2 billion for road construction and transportation. That plus $3.5 billion gets you to $5.5 billion."
In addition to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Proposition 110 is supported by a broad coalition of business interests with much deeper pockets than the Independence Institute, the Libertarian-leaning think tank that's almost entirely bankrolling Fix Our Damn Roads. But if Caldara is worried about being drowned out, he doesn't let on. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he says, "We fully intend to outspend them — but if for some reason we fall a little short of that goal, we're going to let the Denver Chamber, with their millions of dollars, do the heavy lifting, by trying to convince people why they need to pay a tax increase when we can get this done without raising taxes at all."
According to Caldara, "It basically comes down to this slogan: 'No to Taxes, Yes to Roads.'"
Click to read the text of Proposition 109, also known as Fix Our Damn Roads.