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El Paso County commissioners take stand against state sales tax hike

April 18, 2017 Updated: April 18, 2017 at 9:43 pm
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The El Paso County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday took a stand against a proposal that would increase state sales tax to fund transportation projects, saying the measure would be unfair to local residents who already pay extra for infrastructure needs.

Commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing House Bill 1242, which would put a question on the November ballot asking voters to approve a sales tax to pay for improvements to the state's long-neglected transportation system. The resolution suggests state leaders should instead adjust the budget so that money from the state's general fund is used to foot the bill for such projects.

"This isn't a revenue issue. It's a spending issue," Commissioner Mark Waller said at Tuesday's regular meeting. "We need to prioritize state transportation funding through the general fund before we go back to the people and ask for more and more and more."

The bill, passed by the state House on March 31, would create a ballot question asking for a 0.62 percent statewide sales tax increase to repay a $3.5 billion loan to finance the state's high-priority projects, including addressing issues with congestion on Interstates 25 and 70. The 20-year sales tax increase would take effect in 2018. The proposal would also more than double the amount of state dollars that are currently allocated to local governments to address area transportation needs. It would only partially fund the widening of I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock.

A week ago, the Senate Transportation Committee passed a dozen amendments to the bill, including one that would lower the proposed sales tax increase to 0.50 percent and offset that with $100 million annually from the state budget. If the bill's amended version passes the Senate Finance Committee and Senate floor, a conference committee including members from both chambers will be created to make a compromise. Debate on the bill could continue until the session ends at midnight on May 10.

Commissioners said the sales tax would be an unnecessary burden on the region's taxpayers, citing the existing 1 percent sales tax that was established when voters approved a ballot question in November 2004 to create Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority. In 2015, city voters OK'd Ballot Issue 2C, which created a five-year 0.62 percent sales tax increase - applied to everything except utilities, groceries and prescription medications - to pay for road improvements, bringing the city's sales tax to 3.12 percent. The current sales tax rate in Colorado Springs, including county and state taxes, is 8.25 percent.

"This would inequitably tax the citizens of El Paso County if this were to move forward from the legislature and were to pass in the state of Colorado. We've already taken care of a lot down here," said Commissioner Peggy Littleton.

In March, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers called the proposal a "bad deal" for the city. Citizens would have to pay much more in new sales tax than the roughly $18 million per year in transportation funding the city would receive if the measure passes, Suthers said.

Commissioner Waller, who served in the state legislature from 2009-14, hopes the resolution will encourage state senators from El Paso County to vote "no" on the bill and send a message to local voters.

"Normally I would say that these (resolutions) are somewhat ceremonial, but that's not the case here," Waller said. "If you have local elected leaders encouraging the citizens to vote against the ballot proposal that will come out of this piece of legislation, I think that makes legislators less likely to move it forward."

At least one other county in Colorado has come out against the bill. The Douglas County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to oppose it on April 5, saying the changes it proposes wouldn't be enough to foot the bill for all of the state's transportation projects, according to Wendy Manitta Holmes, the county's director of public affairs.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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