The pursuit of a Colorado Springs sports and event center remains uncertain
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Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers speaks Wednesday, March 2, 2016, during a press conference recognizing Colorado Springs as the fifth best city to live in the United States by U.S. News and World Report. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

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A handful of mayors concerned with a transportation funding bill in the legislature argue that maintenance of local roads should be the responsibility of individual jurisdictions.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a Republican, has gone as far as to say that the city does not want the state to share additional revenue with the city beyond what is already prescribed by existing funding requirements.

"The local taxpayers need to decide what they want to do with their local situations, and the state taxpayers need to decide what they want to do with the state situation," Suthers told ColoradoPolitics. "If we're all in this together, they (state taxpayers) would have been paying for our roads, too, and they're not, and nobody wanted to, and they shouldn't."

A bipartisan centerpiece transportation funding bill in the legislature calls for a 0.62 percent state sales tax increase, which would bring the statewide tax to 3.52 percent. The measure would raise about $695 million per year to fund a list of priority projects across the state.

Roads and highways face a $9 billion revenue shortfall over the next decade.

But Suthers says the proposal is a "bad deal" for Colorado Springs, which widely passed its own 0.62 percent sales tax increase in 2015, bringing the city's rate to 3.12 percent. With city, state, county and transit taxes, the current sales tax rate is 8.25 percent, which is relatively high.

Colorado Springs taxpayers got $50 million per year over five years to fund crumbling local roads by backing the 2015 tax increase. Suthers said the city stands to gain only about $18 million per year if the transportation funding bill passes in the legislature. Voters would still have to back the initiative in a statewide election.

"We can't say to our voters we'll ... give up $50 million to get $18 million. It's just not a good deal for us," explained Suthers, the former attorney general for Colorado.

He pointed out that if the state sales tax is increased, Colorado Springs taxpayers would then be paying a rate of 8.87 percent.

Suthers also highlighted that Colorado Springs has its own spending limit. Voters must approve the retention of any money coming in that puts the city over its spending cap. The city might reach $9 million in "excess" sales tax revenues from 2016.

"The quid pro quo just isn't there," Suthers continued of the legislature's plan. "We're paying a lot of sales tax and not getting much back for it."

The Colorado Springs mayor would rather the state focus on raising only enough revenue needed to fund priority statewide projects, such as improvements to Interstate 25 and Interstate 70. Widening those highways has been on a wish list for years, especially I-25 near Monument.

House Bill 1242 would lock in the Department of Transportation's portion of additional funding, about $375 million per year, over a 20-year term. Several observers hope lawmakers will change the formula to make CDOT's portion a percentage of total funding.

Revenue generated through the tax increase also would go towards multi-modal solutions, including public transit, biking and walking. One of the debates over the bill is how to balance transit with roads and highways.

The measure would allow for $3.5 billion in bonding to kick-start projects, in which voters would approve a loan for transportation funding. It would also reallocate $50 million in existing state revenue toward transportation projects.

In an effort to satisfy fiscal conservatives, the bill would eliminate state vehicle registration late fees and reduce ordinary vehicle registration fees, resulting in a roughly $100-million savings for motorists.

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, who is sponsoring House Bill 1242 and is chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said Colorado Springs is in a unique situation.

"They're probably one of the very few municipalities who is in that situation where they've actually raised a transportation tax," Mitsch Bush said.

The transportation funding bill is considered a high priority for the legislature this year, with sponsorship from leaders in both chambers, including House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City. Mitsch Bush said negotiations continue.

"I'd like to be able to talk to them (Colorado Springs officials) about potential solutions that they might have because as both the speaker and I have said, this bill is a compromise and we want to make sure that everyone's needs get served to the extent we can."

A separate bill moving through the legislature could serve as a supplement to the centerpiece transportation funding measure. Senate Bill 267 would restructure the Hospital Provider Fee as an enterprise fund, or government-owned business, in an effort to free money for spending on roads, hospitals and education in rural Colorado.

The Hospital Provider Fee is assessed on patient stays to force a match of federal health care dollars. By enterprising the fee, the state would exempt it from contributing to the state's spending cap, which would free money to be used on areas such as transportation.

Senate Bill 267 also would lower the overall base of state tax revenue by $670 million to protect taxpayer rebates by ensuring that the state could realistically still hit its spending cap.

Suthers has in the past supported a restructuring of the Hospital Provider Fee, which at one time put him severely at odds with other Republicans. Some GOP lawmakers, however, appear to be evolving on the issue.

Senate Bill 267 has bipartisan sponsorship with Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver.

Suthers isn't alone in his thinking on House Bill 1242. Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, a former state lawmaker who also served as the executive director of CDOT, highlighted that his city in 2015 also backed a sales tax increase.

Greeley voters supported raising the sales tax 0.65 percent, in an effort to bring in an additional $9.4 million per year for road improvements. Greeley taxpayers that year also backed reauthorizing a 3.46 percent sales tax on groceries, with part of the money going to roads. The two tax increases are estimated to bring in up to $12 million annually for roads. The combined sales tax rate in Greeley is a little more than 7 percent.

"Where we're really hurting ... is the interstates, I-25 and I-70. If we don't do that we don't have tourism, we don't have commerce, we don't have a lot of things," Norton said. "We need to get that done first and then we as local governments need to step in and figure out how to make the interconnections to those and look at our own commerce and participate in the overall big picture."

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