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Colorado House passes massive transportation bill to send to state's voters

March 31, 2017 Updated: March 31, 2017 at 12:36 pm
Caption +
Looking north towards Castle Rock Thursday, Deceber 22, 2016 as heavy traffic moves along I-25 which is two lanes in each direction. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The state House passed House Bill 1242, the mega-transportation bill, Friday on a 41-24 vote.

The bill would put a measure on the November ballot asking for a 0.62 statewide sales tax increase to raise billions to expand crowded highways, maintain long-neglected rural routes and give local communities flexibility on spending dollars on transit and other ways of moving people.

The House debated dozens of attempted Republican amendments Thursday and continued the political arm-wrestling Friday.

Democrats have the majority in the House and fended off scores of attacks on the bill, mainly because many House Republicans wanted to see the existing state budget cover all or at least some of the proposed $3.5 billion bond issue for top-priority projects.

"I don't know when we became the Bernie Sanders legislature," Polly Lawrence, R-Roxborough Park, said. "We want a gold-plated system, but we want it for nothing."

She said voters don't understand the "minutiae" of government budgeting and political wrangling in the statehouse, but they can't understand lawmakers who don't make transportation a priority within the existing state budget.

She cautioned lawmakers before they voted, "This is one of the hardest decisions you're going to make this year."

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, called the bill a "radical alternative plan" to raise taxes instead of finding money in the largest proposed budget in state history this year.

"The majority seems to believe that a tax increase is the solution to every budget shortfall, that every new state project needs new tax money." he said.

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, chair the House Transportation Committee, called whoa on that.

"Let me remind you what this bill actually is," she said, following Williams on the floor. "It is a referred measure to our voters. We are not, quote, putting a tax on our voters. Only the voters can approve a tax in Colorado.

"We are not making the voters become victims of poverty. We are asking voters to vote on a compromise that was reached between speaker and the president of the Senate for over six months."

House Speaker Crisanta Duran added, "This is a solution both Republicans and Democrats have been able to get behind, and I know bipartisan does not mean unanimous, be we should present a solution to voters ... let the people decide what our transportation system is going to look like for the next generation."

Fix Colorado Roads, the statewide business coalition that has pressured lawmakers for a solution to the state's lagging transportation system, took a neutral positions on House Bill 1242, as passed by the House.

"We are disappointed the House failed to pass an amendment today that would have provided a growing revenue stream for the state transportation system, instead, leaving the state with a diminishing source of funds," Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC, said in a statement Thursday night. "We urge the Senate to take up this critical issue to provide appropriate equity and balance to the state system."

Among the issues Fix Colorado Roads wants the Senate to consider are:

- Restoring money from the state's General Fund budget to transportation.

- Ensuring an immediate project list so voters know what projects they will get in return for increasing taxes.

- Ensuring the state Department of Transportation receives a growing source of funding (for projects) by shifting the fixed allocation of $375 million to a percentage, so the state may benefit from the growth of sales tax and not lose buying power over the 20-year term spelled out in the bill.

"There is still much work to be done to ensure the bill is politically and financially sound," stated Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership. "Citizens of Colorado need a transportation solution they can support and be certain it delivers upon its promise of addressing congestion and safety in the major corridors throughout our state."

Romer said the bill doesn't put enough money into projects on major corridors, such as widening Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock and from Denver to Fort Collins, as well as the I-70 mountain corridor.

Added David May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, "We are pleased that HB-1242 continued its forward process toward the Senate today. We are optimistic that lawmakers will remain open in finding a balanced solution that can win at the ballot box."

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