FASTER crawls to finish line

By Leslie Jorgensen

Senate Democrats and Republicans wrangled with amendments — most defeated — to reach a compromise on a bill aimed at raising $214 million next year and $265 million the following year to improve highway infrastructure, including 126 bridges deemed structurally deficient.

“We can’t wait another day,” bill sponsor Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, told his fellow state senators. “Colorado lost 47,000 jobs last year. Our unemployment rate is over 6 percent. Now is the time to lead.”

Lawmakers agreed on the importance of the bill’s goals — to create jobs to stimulate the economy and to make desperately needed repairs on Colorado’s roads and bridges.

They disagreed, however, on how to pay for those goals, debating for hours. Republicans fought increases in vehicle registration fees, tolls on new and existing roads and highways and a $2-a-day car rental fee.

Despite such contention, Senate Bill 108 — coined FASTER (an acronym for Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery) — passed 19 to16 on final reading in the Senate on Thursday, Feb. 5. The vote broke along party lines, with the exception of Democrats Morgan Carroll, of Aurora, and Lois Tochtrop, of Thornton, who joined the Republican senators in casting “no” votes.

“We have moved light years,” said Senate President Peter Groff, of Denver, alluding to the many compromises that altered the bill as it progressed.

Gov. Bill Ritter issued a media statement commending Groff, Gibbs and Democrats who voted for the bill.

“This is one of the most important bills being considered this session. It will create thousands of new jobs all across Colorado and strengthen our economy during one of the worst global crises in decades,” said Ritter, who had discussed the bill in a separate meeting with House Republican leaders.

“It will let us fix and maintain structurally deficient bridges and unsafe roadways, and it will put us on a long-term path toward a modern, 21st-century transportation system that is supported by a sustainable funding stream.”

The day before, the Senate had been embroiled in more than five hours of debate as Democrats pushed for speedy passage.

Republican senators strongly objected to burdening Coloradans with increased fees — which they called taxes — during an economic crisis, and they expressed doubt that many jobs would be created.

“We are considering a quarter-billion-dollar tax increase during some of the roughest economic times our state has seen in recent history,” said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield.

“You don’t slam taxpayers while they’re down,” said Mitchell, who described the decaying transportation infrastructure as a potential disaster on the scale of the Titanic as he protested the fee-based rescue package.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, went beyond Mitchell’s comparison of the coming disaster to the Titanic, the Olympic-class passenger ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 after hitting an iceberg.

“It’s the problem of the Titanic that’s ultimately soon going to become a civil war,” said Romer, who views the bill as a solution to a statewide problem. He cautioned against pitting the interests of rural areas against metropolitan areas.

The bill would fund improvements through an enterprise based on fees and possibly tolls.

The increase in vehicle-registration fees would add $32 for most cars in 2010, and $41 in 2011. The proposed fee will be slightly higher for SUVs and pickups, and as much as $71 for larger trucks and buses.

Democrats offered several compromises that were palatable to the Republicans. These included eliminating the following provisions:

• Tolls on existing roads and highways;

• A pilot study to replace the state gas tax with a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fee; and

• Indexing the vehicle registration fee increases to allow annual inflation adjustments without legislative review or public input.

In response, Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, was prepared to offer an amendment to minimize the proposed vehicle registration fee hike next year and to phase in increases over a period of three years.

By late Wednesday, White abandoned that idea because most Democrats had voted to restore the provision allowing local governments to charge tolls for existing and highways within their districts. A tolling area would require unanimous approval by all governing bodies in jurisdictions that would be involved in or substantially affected by the fee.

“Earlier we voted against dotting our roads and highways with toll booths. Now, apparently there’s been a change of heart,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. He said that people on the Western Slope don’t want tolls.

The Senate also approved an amendment proposed by Gibbs and Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, which requires80 percent of the total labor force employed on a public works project to be Colorado labor and gives preference to Colorado contractors.

Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, had proposed an amendment to allow only Colorado residents and contractors to be hired for the projects.

“These jobs should go to legal residents of Colorado — not to illegal immigrants from Guatemala,” said Schultheis, adding that the “pot of gold” will attract workers outside the state and cause a massive immigration problem.

Schultheis’ amendment was defeated, as were several others proposed by Republicans — leading some to declare that the bill could never be truly bipartisan.

Republicans also objected to the urgency of the bill and sought time to find other ways to fund the transportation projects.

“Under the terms of our budget, transportation gets the last dollar of the general fund when times are good, and it is the first dollar to get axed during periods of budget shortage like these,” said Penry.

He added that under the bill, “motorists pay a lot more, but government carries on just the same — business as usual — blithely refusing to reprioritize” money in the general fund for work on roads and bridges.

There could, however, be more money in the general fund for road and bridge projects if House Minority Leader Mike May, of Parker, gets his way.

May wants to eliminate the Colorado Conservation Easement Program, which gives special tax credits to landowners who deed property for open space preservation. Since the conservation program began in 2001, the state has granted $275 million in tax credits.

According the May’s estimates, eliminating the tax credits would generate as much as $100 million annually for transportation projects.

Last June, the program became the subject of a Colorado grand jury investigation for irregularities in credit claims, including questionable property appraisals that inflated the tax credits. The issue came to light in 2003, when the IRS determined that most of 290 credit claims had been based on inflated land values.

A bill seeking to eliminate the program will be introduced by May in the House and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, in the Senate. The proposal, if approved, would be placed on the ballot for voter approval.