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GUEST COLUMN: Transportation has become the forgotten stepchild in the state budget

By: Ray Scott
December 17, 2017 Updated: December 17, 2017 at 4:05 am
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Gov. John Hickenlooper has again asked for zero taxpayer dollars for roads and bridges in his annual budget message. Sad to say, Colorado's governor cannot find even one taxpayer dollar for roads and bridges in $11.5 billion in planned general fund expenditures.

This pattern in the governor's annual budget submissions has been dutifully echoed in Democrat legislators' steadfast opposition to prioritizing roads and bridges in the budget. This neglect of road and bridge funding has been going on for over a decade.

During this period, despite the promises made to voters in the 2005 campaign for Referendum C, transportation projects have never been afforded priority status in the annual budget allocation of general fund taxpayer dollars.

Referendum C has allowed the state to "retain" and spend $18.8 billion since the 2005-2006 fiscal year according to an October report by the Legislature's legislative council staff. Can you guess what percentage of those additional billions the Legislature appropriated for roads and bridges? Less than one-half of 1 percent of Referendum C funds - a meager $49 million - has been allocated to transportation projects.

That shortchanging of roads and bridges in the allocation of Referendum C revenues is nearly criminal considering that transportation funding was one of the four "urgent needs" used to justify support for Referendum C. For example, the Bell Policy Center's summary of the Referendum C ballot proposal stated, "Ref C funds are to be specifically used for public K-12 education, higher education, health care and transportation." Those promises were never kept.

In the face of perennial Democrat opposition to prioritizing roads and bridges in the budget, Republicans have been forced to resort to long-term bonding, which costs more over the long run and yet must still be financed by annual appropriations.

In the 2017 session, the Legislature passed legislation to finance $1.9 billion in transportation projects over the next 20 years, but everyone knows that amount is only a down payment toward funding the Department of Transportation's $9 billion backlog of road and bridge improvements. Why should lawmakers have to resort to convoluted fiscal gymnastics to fund needed improvements in roads and bridges when every poll shows that to be a top priority for Coloradans?

In contrast to transportation, in the governor's 2018-2019 budget proposal most other departments are getting increased funding. If you think it is unfair to draw up an indictment based on a single years' budget, consider the history of the state budget since the passage of referendum C in 2005.

If funding for roads and bridges had benefited equally with K-12 education, higher education and health care, then transportation projects would have received $4.45 billion, not a paltry $49 million. Maybe we need to call that missing $4.40 billion the transportation negative factor and begin paying it down.

To be fair, the neglect of transportation funding began long before Referendum C. From 1979 to 2016, transportation projects received general fund appropriations in only 17 of 37 state budgets, and from 1993 to 2013, transportation received zero general fund dollars in eight of those 20 years.

Taxpayers can draw only one conclusion from this record of legislative neglect for roads and bridges: the General Assembly's spending priorities are seriously out of whack. It is not a coincidence that over that period, Democrats have been in control of the Governor's Office and the Office of State Planning and Budgeting's annual budget submission.

Last May, Hickenlooper signed a bipartisan compromise transportation bill which asked the governor and his budget office to submit a 2018-2019 budget to the Legislature with a 2 percent reduction in all agencies except education and transportation.

If implemented, that 2 percent reduction formula would yield an estimated $160 million in taxpayer dollars available for roads and bridges. Unfortunately, the governor's budget proposal sent to the Legislature on Nov. 1 did not accommodate that request. Thus, regrettably, the governor's budget message cannot serve as the starting place for the General Assembly in prioritizing transportation funding in the 2018-2019 long bill.

Obviously, with a split Colorado Legislature, the final decisions on the 2018-2019 budget will necessarily reflect bipartisan compromises. However, in 2018 Republicans will be insisting that those compromises include a recognition of the promises made in support of Referendum C and then ignored. It is past time to start prioritizing road and bridge funding in the state budget.

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Sen. Ray Scott (R-SD7) serves as assistant majority leader and is chairman of the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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