Legislators work overtime on transportation plan

By John Schroyer

Statehouse Republicans have been working on two plans to create transportation funding which, if combined, could yield as much as $5 billion over the next 10 years. This week they made their pitch to Colorado’s Blue Ribbon Transportation Panel in hopes of gaining more support.

At Tuesday’s meeting — part of an ongoing series of conferences that will continue well into the fall — a trio of Republican lawmakers discussed two plans: petitioning a measure onto the November ballot and resurrecting a failed 2008 bill for the 2009 legislative session.

The ballot measure, Initiative 120, would reroute severance tax income into the transportation infrastructure. The GOP estimates that Initiative 120 could provide as much as $90 million in 2009 alone if it’s approved by voters this fall. Reps. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, are leading the campaign, known as Better Roads Now. They’re in the process of gathering petition signatures, and must collect 76,074 by the Aug. 4 deadline in order to qualify for the ballot.

The legislative measure, dubbed Colorado Plus One, was first revealed in the waning days of this year’s legislative session, but it was not granted late bill status by Democratic leadership. Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said the measure will be back in 2009. It would install transportation as a base priority in the budget, and transportation would receive a set amount, a little over 1 percent, of the annual 6 percent budgetary increase.

For example, the Legislative Council estimates that in the 2011-2012 fiscal year (when Plus One would take effect), the 6 percent budget increase will be $506.9 million. Under Colorado Plus One, $59 million of that would be earmarked for transportation, and that amount would remain permanently in place for transportation every year after that. Then in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the estimated growth would be $537.3 million, and transportation would get another $61.8 million a year. Thus, the amount dedicated to transportation would increase exponentially over the decades.

By 2020, the increase will have reached $3.8 billion, while the entire general fund will have increased by almost $30 billion.

“The idea is, very simply, to build transportation into the general fund,” explained Penry. “This is a proposal that gives transportation a seat at the table.”

Transportation funding is not mandated in the Colorado Constitution, unlike funding for education and other state necessities. Penry noted that this particular constitutional anomaly is rare among states, putting Colorado in a small minority.

Gardner also stressed that the measure is not binding, as Amendment 23 is, because it’s statutory, not constitutional. That way, he said, the Legislature can pull back from giving transportation any set amount if it has more pressing needs in other areas, or if the state encounters another recession and is forced to make cuts.

Gardner, McNulty and Penry asserted that because the Plus One plan focuses on income that has not yet been collected, and because the 1 percent increase mandated by Amendment 23 expires in 2010, their plan will not take any money from existing projects. Rather, it will simply take over the 1 percent increase that now goes to education.

“The real political courage comes when we try to prioritize the money that’s already coming in to Colorado,” said McNulty. “This allows us to do that in a way where no programs are cut.”

Not so, said Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction.

“Of course it would (take money from other programs),” Buescher said. “It’s a finite number of dollars that will be spent somewhere.”

State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a Democrat and a co-chair of the Transportation Panel, agreed with Buescher, and said she opposes the bill for the same reason. But Buescher, who many believe will become Speaker of the House next session with the departure Andrew Romanoff, said he’s not ready to write the bill off completely.

“There are components of it that need to be discussed. We need to keep the discussion going,” he said.

Buescher added, however, that he also doesn’t like the idea of tying future legislators’ hands when it comes to the budget.

“That part of the proposal gives me some heartburn,” he said.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, also spoke at the meeting, saying that although he supports the concept, he doesn’t believe the Plus One bill is “the full solution.”

He also worried that if transportation funding proves to be a piecemeal affair, cobbled together through multiple bills and ballot measures, the public might be loath to approve a needed tax increase in 2009 if the Better Roads Now campaign succeeds this year.

“How do you go back to the voters for a second, bigger fix?” Romer asked.

Penry replied that the harsh truth is that there isn’t a “one-fell-swoop solution,” and the state will have to rely on a conglomeration of different measures.

He also said that Republicans will be more open to the possibility of raising fees or taxes next year if Democrats show more support for their measures this fall and during the next legislative session, especially since the Transportation Panel recommended a much higher funding increase than $5 billion over the next 10 years. Their ideal increase would be $1.5 billion a year, or $15 billion over the next decade.

“That’s part of the give and take,” Penry said about possibly supporting a new tax. “(The Democrats) don’t want to give up General Fund, and none of us are particularly excited about raising taxes, but you don’t get to a big number unless you do a little bit of everything.”

McNulty, however, was more pessimistic.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to the $1.5 billion. I don’t think that’s going to happen… Under any circumstance, I don’t think we’re going to get there. But I think the Legislature needs to step up and do the best it can,” he said.

Buescher and the Transportation Panel, meanwhile, aren’t even sure what route they’re ultimately going to endorse. Buescher stressed to the panel on Tuesday that one of the first decisions they should make is whether they want to try and solve the funding crisis through a ballot measure, through the Legislature, or through both.

“That decision needs to be made because that sets a lot of the future course for the discussion,” Buescher said.

Regardless, the Transportation Panel has already begun gearing up for a campaign next year. The members have divided into four subcommittees: strategic investment and transit programs, coalition building, public education and proposal options. So fully half of the group’s work is dedicated toward persuading the public to approving a tax hike.

Russ George, the head of CDOT, said the coalition-building subcommittee had already enlisted the advice of high-powered political operatives Maria Garcia Berry, who engineered the successful Fastracks campaign in Denver, and Rick Reiter, an integral part of the team that got Referendum C passed.

He said one of the things Reiter had impressed upon them is that since the approval of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, the 1992 measure which then required all tax increases be put before the voters, only one statewide tax hike has been approved — the 2004 tobacco tax hike.

George said Reiter had told them to concentrate on the message.

“ ‘You’re not going to get anywhere with the voters talking about taxes,’ ” George relayed. “ ‘You will get somewhere talking about economics… Then, when you’re done talking about the investment, you bring up the tax, which would pay for the economic improvement.’ ”

It seemed like Reiter and Berry had delivered a quick Politics 101 seminar to the subcommittee, but the panel took the messages to heart and listened raptly as George rattled off the lessons.

He warned that a bloody political battle in the Legislature would probably lead to defeat at the ballot box. After all, he said, if the public sees a divided Statehouse, and watches the Democrats simply ram something through in desperation, then Republicans and many independent voters will simply be turned off. But unity in the Legislature — or even a strong bipartisan coalition — would prove an enormous political asset during the campaign.

Furthermore, he stressed that the policy approach is vital. Reiter told George that whatever approach they take, whether it’s raising the gas tax or the sales tax or even by creating a new tax, is fully half the battle. The campaign, he said, would make up another 30 percent, and other logistics would comprise the rest.

Reiter also warned that the panel probably faces a tough fight. He said transportation is “very hard to sell,” and doesn’t have the emergency quality that Referendum C had.

There also aren’t any hardcore political transportation activists, as there are advocates for education, health care and the environment.

“‘I don’t know who your maniacs are,’” Reiter told George.

Additionally, he advised, without 17 of the 18 leading newspapers around the state on board with whatever ballot measure eventually emerges, the initiative would be in serious trouble.

“‘A statewide tax hike has to be a one-sided event,’” the politico said, according to George.

Panel co-chair Bob Tointon said the panel should begin contemplating innovative ways to educate the public. He suggested buying advertising, especially roadside billboards, that color-code whatever highway they’re displayed next to.

Said Tointon, “We’re going to have to think out of the box to get people to understand their infrastructure is crumbling.”