DENVER (AP) – Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday killed two bills that were polar opposites in addressing the state’s underfunded roads crisis, ensuring that nothing was done in this year’s legislative session to tackle the $8 billion-and-growing problem.
Democratic lawmakers first defeated a $3.5 billion roads bonds measure that was backed by Republicans and presented by House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso. Democrats insisted there’s not enough revenue to back new bonds, which would require up to $5.5 billion over 20 years.
Republican lawmakers followed by rejecting a Democrat-backed bill to spend millions of dollars more on roads, K-12 schools and higher education. Backers said it would have freed as much as $700 million for roads over the next five years by liberating a Medicaid fund, paid in part by hospitals to care for the needy, from budgetary spending limits. Republicans said voters would have to approve the move under Colorado’s constitutional spending limits.
Business groups supported both bills to improve Colorado’s 1950s-designed roads network. That was declared a top priority when the session began four months ago by Gov. John Hickenlooper and leaders of both parties. The 2016 session ends Wednesday.
Colorado’s Department of Transportation devotes most of its $1.4 billion budget to maintenance and says it needs $1 billion more each year to build roads for more than 7.3 million residents by 2040. Voters haven’t increased the 22-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax in more than 20 years. It and the federal gas tax provide more than half CDOT’s revenue.
Republican Sen. Randy Baumgartner’s bonding bill would have asked voters to approve the bond issue to tackle a host of projects that included widening of Interstates 70 and 25 in metro Denver and beyond, as well as U.S. Highway 50 near Pueblo.
DelGrosso revealed Tuesday that, as an incentive, Republicans had restored mass-transit projects that had been stripped from the bill over the objections of Democrats. He offered an amendment to have the bonds paid for by increases in motor vehicle registration fees.
Voters would have to approve all of it, he explained, in line with TABOR, which requires their approval of any tax increases.
“The voters can give us an up or a down, and if they give us a down we can continue to fund transportation at $100 million a year,” DelGrosso said of restricted funding under current law.
Democrat lawmakers cited a host of reasons – too late to discuss, the construction projects are wrong, self-driving cars can relieve congestion, where will we find the money to maintain new roads – before rejecting it.
The GOP-led Senate Finance Committee voted 3-2 to kill the complicated Democrat-backed plan to exclude the multimillion-dollar Medicaid fund from the budgeting restrictions imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
TABOR requires refunds whenever total state income surpasses a cap that’s based on inflation and population. Removing the fee from its umbrella would free more money for roads.
Republicans said TABOR required voter approval of the plan, co-sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. And they focused on rapidly-expanding Medicaid spending as the culprit for Colorado’s spending woes.
“This bill comes down to a rather simple analysis for me: Have we earned the voters’ trust that we can spend additional money well?” said GOP Sen. Owen Hill, who voted against the measure.
– By JAMES ANDERSON, AP Writer
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