Transportation Committee gets wheels up on ‘13 bills

The Colorado Statesman

The Transportation Legislation Review Committee met on Sept. 14, voting to introduce eight bills when the legislative session begins in January, including revisiting a bill to establish penalties for driving while under the influence of marijuana.

But one sore point within the joint committee was a proposal presented by Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, who asked the committee to introduce a bill next year that would allocate a portion of increased growth in sales tax revenues to transportation projects. Democrats rejected introducing the bill as a committee, killing the request on a tie vote of 8-8.

Priola’s bill — which he is still considering introducing next year — is modeled after a formula developed in Utah, in which the state allocated a portion of future state sales and use tax net revenue growth to transportation.

The measure that would be introduced in the General Assembly would require the state treasurer to transfer $10 million per year from the General Fund to the Highway Users Tax Fund in every fiscal year following a year in which state sales and use tax net revenue grows by 1.5 percent or more.

Priola says the measure is a “bridge” to a bill pushed by Democrats in 2009, Senate Bill 228, which eliminated the 6 percent General Fund spending cap, known as Arveschoug-Bird. Republicans, who have been trying to reinstate the spending limit since 2009, heavily opposed the move.

Senate Bill 228 replaced the 6 percent cap with a limit equal to 5 percent of Colorado personal income. It also repealed the automatic transfer of funds in excess of the spending limit to the Highway Users Tax Fund and Capital Construction Fund for transportation projects.

Priola says his bill aims to add certainty to transportation funding following SB 228, and he criticized the current funding mechanism.

“Contractors aren’t going to sharpen their pencils as readily as they would under the current price structure…” he said.

The Henderson lawmaker had the support of several of his Republican colleagues on the committee, including Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, who pointed to the increasingly poor condition of the state’s roads and highways.

“In the last 10 years, the condition of our roads has gone from 40 percent poor condition to 52 percent poor condition,” he said. “I understand that there is a need for money in every section of government in the state, but if we do not have roads, and if we continue down this road of having more and more poor condition roads, you can kiss our economy goodbye.”

Supporters of the proposal were bolstered by testimony from R.J. Hicks, executive director of the Western States Transportation Alliance, a group of 10 Western states that lobby for transportation funding. He spoke favorably of the Utah model, pointing out that Utah now has over 625 contractors employing 13,500 people in transportation projects as a result of their revenue growth funding mechanism. Utah has also been able to add at least eight projects to its “wish list,” according to Hicks.

He added that Colorado will see population growth from about 5 million to 6 million by 2020, and that total miles traveled has increased 34 percent in Colorado in the last 15 years. He expects to see it grow by another 20 percent by 2020.

Congestion is another factor, con-tinued Hicks, pointing out that traffic leads to $2 billion in lost productivity every year in the Denver metro area.

“The real issue comes down to the point of whether or not there is funding,” said Hicks. “We will see growth in the state of Colorado… the big question is… are we going to meet and address the transportation needs that are going to be here?”

But Democrats raised concerns that the new transportation funding formula would take money away from education. They pointed out that growth in sales and use tax revenue goes to the general fund, which funds areas like education, corrections and Medicaid. Democrats have fears about redirecting some of that money away from education.

Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said that while he sympathizes with the need for transportation and infrastructure funding, he can’t get over the fact that education in Colorado has been cut over the last several years, including a 16 percent total cut to K-12, and a 20 percent overall cut to higher education.

“I just see this as pretty much a direct reduction in what we can do for education,” said Jones.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, whose district includes parts of the heavily congested Interstate 70 corridor, said that she agrees something needs to be done about transportation funding, but she was reluctant to sup-port a measure that would require a future legislature to allocate the funding.

“Like everyone on the committee, we’re struggling with how to fund trans-portation in Colorado… but we don’t currently have this money, so in the fact that we don’t have the money, we’re requiring the future legislature to spend the money in this way, if and when it does come in…” she said. “I’d rather see the legislature be more flexible.”

After House Republicans in a news release blasted Hamner for voting against the proposal, citing her ties to the I-70 corridor, she became more forceful in her opposition to the bill.

“We are not willing to cut our schools for an ill-conceived and incomplete transportation funding scheme,” Hamner said in a competing news release issued by House Democrats. “I will not pave over our kids.”

‘Driving while stoned’ bill is back

The committee did reach consensus, however, on a bill that revisits establishing penalties for driving while under the influence of marijuana. The Transportation Legislation Review Committee voted 10-6 to introduce the bill next year as a committee.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, a former police officer, will sponsor the measure again next year after a nearly identical bill took a roller coaster ride through the legislature this year before it was ultimately killed. Another attempt at the legislation also died in the 2011 session.

The proposed bill would similarly allow prosecutors to charge a driver with a DUID if they have a blood content of 5 nanograms per millimeter of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) at the time of the alleged offense. The bill would expand the existing definition of “DUI per se” in order to offer district attorneys the prosecutorial tool.

King watched in agony earlier this year as his DUID-marijuana bill took one of the strangest trips of any bill moving through the legislature. It died on the Senate floor on a voice vote on May 1 before being resurrected through a procedural rule. The Senate then backed the bill. With only a week to clear the House, Senate Bill 117 fell victim to political games when House Republican leadership allowed dozens of bills to die on the calendar in a last-ditch attempt to kill same-sex civil unions legislation. Gov. John Hickenlooper then called a special session, adding King’s DUID-marijuana bill to the call. But when the bill made it back to the Senate floor, Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, was away attending a family event out of state. Without Spence’s support, the bill died on a tie vote of 17-17.

Given its near passage this year, King is ready to give it a go again when the session starts in January. He is hopeful that by introducing the bill as a measure supported by the transportation committee, he will have a better shot at passage.

“I am faced with a situation of fa-tality rates related to THC are going up. How long are we going to sit and watch before taking action?” asked King. “And if not this committee, if not transportation — whose goals and objectives are the safe transportation of our citizens across the state — if not this com-mittee, then who… and if not now… then when are we going to do it?”

Opponents are already raising similar concerns from earlier this year, including that the determining THC level is too low. Critics believe that habitual marijuana users often wake up in the morning with a level of 5 nanograms of THC or more, before even smoking or ingesting marijuana.

Michael Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, acknowledged concerns with the bill making it through the legislature next year given its near passage this year. But he said opponents are already lining up to fight the bill.

“It’s frustrating to see the same exact bill that has been defeated the last two legislative sessions, and that there’s been no room for addressing this problem that doesn’t result in unimpaired people being convicted of impaired driving,” said Elliott.

Other issues and bills addressed by the committee

The Transportation Legislation Review Committee addressed several other transportation issues and bills over its nearly seven-hour meeting.

The committee unanimously backed sending a letter to the Colorado Department of Transportation, asking Executive Director Donald Hunt to explore ways in which the legislature can assist in expediting current construction projects. The letter points out that as of June 30, CDOT had $97.8 million available. Drafted by Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, the letter tells CDOT that the Transportation Legislation Review Committee would like to see available funds in operation as quickly as possible.

A bill initiated by Rep. Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, would add two at-large members appointed by the governor to the Transportation Commission, each of whom would represent the entire state. The commission currently consists of 11 members who represent a single transportation district. The Transportation Legislation Review Committee backed introducing the bill as a committee by a vote of 9-7. Because Vaad is term limited, Priola offered to be the prime sponsor of the bill when it is introduced next year.

A bill initiated by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, would build on legislation from 2008 that asked for a report by 2010 on the con-version or utilization of alternative fuels for operation of state fleets. Schwartz is asking for a report in March that will summarize what efforts have been made for purchasing alternative fuel vehicles. The bill passed the committee by a vote of 12-3.

A bill initiated by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, would update laws re-garding vehicle registration and special license plates to conform to current statutes. The bill is mostly technical. It passed by a unanimous vote.

A bill also initiated by Hudak would direct the Department of Revenue to set up an electronic system to receive tax reports filed by the owners of rental special mobile machinery. The bill passed unanimously.

A bill initiated by Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, would repeal the fee currently charged to a member of the armed services for the branch-of-service identifier on a Colorado driver’s license or state identification card. The bill passed unanimously.

A bill initiated by Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, would limit the num-ber of alumni, designer, military, or group special license plates in Colorado. He believes there are too many special license plates in the state, and that it is confusing to law enforcement. The com-mittee backed the bill by a vote of 8-7. Scott still has details in the bill to work out.

And finally, a bill initiated by Brown would exempt certain rail fixed guide-way systems from inclusion on a list that the Public Utilities Commission is currently required to provide the Department of Revenue that details the public utilities subject to its jurisdiction. The committee backed the bill unanimously.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com