By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — Rep. Dennis Apuan’s townhall meeting on the economy and its impact on jobs turned from a seminar featuring House Speaker Terrance Carroll into a crisis hotline as constituents pleaded for jobs to stop the financial bleeding.
Carroll, Apuan and state Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, responded with assurances that relief would come with the passage of FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery), Gov. Bill Ritter’s plan to raise $214 million for repairs on Colorado’s roads and bridges by increasing certain fees.
The Democrats said that, by June, FASTER will create several thousand jobs to repair bridges.
The panel also included Dana Rodenbaugh, of the Pikes Peak Work Force Center, and Eugene Contreras, of the Colorado Bankers Association.
The legislators couldn’t assure that jobs created by FASTER would materialize in El Paso County, where unemployment hovers at 6.9 percent — higher than the state average — and the foreclosure rate was 30 percent higher in 2008 than it was in 2007.
A member of the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority asked why the list of FASTER projects excludes deteriorating bridges in El Paso County and neighboring Teller County.
“Coloradans have weathered previous storms in terms of economic crisis because we recognize where opportunities exist — and we seize those opportunities,” Apuan said, adding that the response to the recession “should not be panic or haste.”
Nevertheless, a sense of panic was palpable among the nearly 50 people gathered in the community room at Ruth Holly Public Library. Several told of being unemployed, fearing they will lose their jobs or helping family members who were laid off months ago.
The meeting invitation sounded hopeful. “Come learn about the current economic situation and its impact on Colorado jobs: today and into the future — and how to prepare yourself and find employment.”
In addition to Apuan, Carroll and Morse, the panel included Dana Rodenbaugh, of the Pikes Peak Work Force Center, and Eugene Contreras, of the Colorado Bankers Association.
“Unemployment is at levels that we haven’t seen in 32 years,” said Contreras. “Assets and retirement plans have depreciated as much as 50 percent… so everyone is frustrated.”
Despite the economic crisis, Rodenbaugh said Colorado banks are strong and secure and have increased their lending in the last quarter. That, he said, puts them in a better position than most national banks, mortgage companies and mortgage brokers, where the situation is more precarious.
“Progress in the economy probably won’t happen this year,” Contreras said.
That was dismal news. One woman said she has been helping family members who were laid off and haven’t found work.
“What happens when I run out of money?” she asked. “How will they eat? How will they find a place to live?”
Carroll was compassionate, but confessed that he didn’t have all the answers.
“Our unemployment has spiked to 6.2 percent statewide,” said Carroll, adding that Colorado is faring better than a number of other states, but has limited resources to help the increasing number of unemployed workers. He encouraged unemployed workers to go to the Pikes Peak Job Center for job referrals or training.
He also said he hopes the federal government will offer another extension of unemployment benefits.
“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but the state government can’t do anything right now — even the food banks are hurting,” Carroll said.
“We are making sure the most vulnerable population — the struggling families — is not falling through the safety net,” said Apuan.
“We’ve got to shore up the landing for many Colorado families who are losing their jobs, their retirement plans and health care,” added Morse. “We’ve got to shore that safety net and make sure it’s strong enough to cushion that blow.”
“We have to create new jobs and stimulate the economy. We’ve got cut a billion dollars from the state budget and position Colorado for a strong and quick recovery,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
FASTER bill scrutinized
The quickest relief might come from the FASTER bill, Morse said. The bill would raise funds to repair 126 structurally deficient bridges around the state and create several thousand jobs. The Colorado Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel recommended adding $1.5 billion annually to the transportation infrastructure budget.
The FASTER bill proposes several different fees and optional tolls on new and existing roads to generate about $214 million in the first year, and $265 million in the second year.
That money would enable the state to generate at least $500 million by selling interest in state buildings and properties through certificates of participation — and without voter approval.
The bill, which is currently in the House Transportation and Energy Committee, proposes increasing vehicle registration fees by $32 in the first year and $41 the following year. The fees are slightly higher for SUVs, pickup trucks, larger trucks and buses.
“Losing your job and paying an extra $30 is not a good idea. But, the reality is — we’re going to create 4,000 new jobs — and we’re fixing bridges that needed to be fixed anyway,” said Morse.
A couple, both of whom recently lost their jobs with John Laing homes, looked stunned.
“That isn’t a lot of money to you — but it is to me, considering that I’ve been laid off,” said Valerie Beverly.
“I wish like the devil that we wouldn’t have to do that — or that we could give everybody a $5,000 check to help them get through this time. But that’s not realistic,” said Morse. “We need to pay to help ourselves get out of this.”
“Our fees are nowhere near what they need to be. We have not raised our gas tax since 1991,” he explained. “We pay 22 cents a gallon, but cars have become more fuel efficient — so we’re getting a lot less tax money per mile.”
Carroll said the Special Select Committee on Job Creation and Economic Growth began meeting after the November election and considered alternative funding methods. Because of TABOR requirements, a request to raise gas taxes couldn’t be put on the ballot until November 2010. Even then, he surmised that it would fail.
Morse added that “people aren’t really going to vote to tax themselves … Direct Democracy doesn’t work. That’s why we have to elect representatives like me to make the decision on these hard facts.”
Carroll said he wouldn’t have supported FASTER unless it was absolutely necessary.
“The only option to raise money quickly is to increase fees,” said Carroll. “If I ever chose to run for another office, this could be shooting myself in the foot.”
Morse imagined the Republican backlash.
“Will we get bashed in the newspaper? Of course we will. The minority party is going to bash us and position themselves to take over in two years,” he said.
Kit Roupe, a member of the RTA board, said, “There are very few bridges included in the FASTER bill. El Paso and Teller counties have six bridges that are in bad shape — but they are not included in the FASTER bill projects.”
Roupe, a Republican candidate who ran against Apuan last year, asked him why that was true.
“This isn’t a transportation bill,” Morse replied, “It’s a jobs bill.”
“Then where are the jobs for Colorado Springs and Teller County?” Roupe asked.
Morse moaned, “All I hear about is my family or my neighborhood or my community or my state. How is Colorado Springs going to fare in this bill? I don’t know … We need to get as much for Colorado Springs as we can — but we also have to keep a state perspective.”
“I represent 122,000 people — I have to keep that in mind,” said Morse. “But, as you see, my nametag says ‘State Senator.’”
Carroll said, “In this economic crisis, we’re going to work hard to extend opportunity to others who may have been left out of the economy before. We want to create a state where there is opportunity for all of us — no matter who you are or where you live.”