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EDITORIAL: Fix Colorado highways without a tax increase

By: The Gazette editorial board
March 19, 2017 Updated: March 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm
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Drivers cruise along I-25 Thursday, October 8, 2015 near Larkspur. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Gov. John Hickenlooper and state legislators have made one thing clear. They won't fix highways and bridges unless voters capitulate on a tax hike. Shiny new buildings for the Department of Transportation, yes. Roads and bridges, no.

Politicians hope voters will get so tired of potholes, traffic jams and crashes they will vote for new taxes in return for getting state government to conduct one its most fundamental roles.

House Bill 1242, with bipartisan support, would ask voters to increase the state sales tax from 2.9 cents to 3.5 cents. As a concession to Republicans, the bill redirects $50 million in existing revenues to transportation and reduces vehicle registration fees by $75 million a year. The net gain for transportation is $677 million annually for 20 years, beginning in January.

Here's what it would look like in Colorado Springs. City taxpayers fork over a combined sales tax of 8.25 cents each time they spend a dollar. If statewide voters pass the tax hike, the combined sales tax in Colorado Springs goes to 8.87 cents on the dollar.

At 8.87 cents, our sales tax would nearly tie New York City's 8.875 percent combined tax. We would have the 10th highest sales tax in the country, undercutting the Big Apple by only 0.005 percent.

Given the federal and state lawsuits against our community, and the hundreds of millions we must spend to upgrade stormwater infrastructure, we might need another local sales tax hike. That could make us the first major city in the country with a combined sales tax of 10 cents on the dollar or more. Sales taxes are so regressive they are paid even by those on social services who can barely afford basic goods.

Even with our community's high sales tax dilemma, we could support a tax hike for roads if it were the only true option. No entity has been more outspoken regarding the need to widen I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock than The Gazette's editorial board.

Problem is, new taxes aren't the only option. State government's budget has grown by nearly 40 percent in the past five years. As pointed out in an op-ed in the Aurora Sentinel by Araphahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, a likely Republican contender for governor, the state budget is growing four times faster than the state's population and more than four times wage growth.

With record revenues, Hickenlooper proposed a record-breaking $28.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2017-18. The governor and Legislature could come up with $677 million for roads and bridges by reprioritizing just 2.3 percent of the budget. By readjusting a flat 2 percent, they could budget $570 million for transportation.

The $426 million in revenue growth in this year's budget is countered by $143 million in new Medicaid costs, $243.5 million in constitutionally mandated new K-12 education spending, reserve repayments, taxpayer rebates and mandatory transfers to transportation and building. In all, the new revenues are dwarfed by $926.1 million in new constitutional and statutory demands on the general fund.

We're not saying a shift in priorities would be easy. We're suggesting that strong leaders in the legislative and executive branches of government should be able to reprioritize 2-to-2.5 percent of the budget for something so important as roads, bridges and highway safety. If they can't do that, they've lost any semblance of fiscal control.

Though we can't support the tax proposal, we are intrigued by another measure vying for November's ballot called "Fix Our Damn Roads." The Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank, wants voters to pass a law requiring the Legislature to reprioritize 2 percent of the budget to pay for $2.5 billion in bonding for bridges and roads.

"If lawmakers aren't willing to do their jobs, then we'll ask the voters to do it for them," said institute president Jon Caldara.

We'd prefer legislators get busy prioritizing roads without the force of voter-imposed mandate. If they don't, voters are likely to commandeer another slice of the budget.

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