Colorado House Democrats propose transportation bill rewrite

The last-minute proposal places the two sides at another impasse over how much to spend on transportation.

Colorado House of Representatives, March 15, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Brian Eason, Associated Press

With just days left in the legislative session, Colorado House Democrats on Tuesday proposed a sweeping rewrite of a transportation funding bill that would boost funding for mass transit and replace a Republican plan to issue bonds.

The last-minute proposal places the two sides at another impasse over how much to spend on transportation, with Republicans pushing for long-term budget commitments and Democrats seeking protections to ensure money spent on roads does not come at the expense of underfunded schools.

The counter-proposal unveiled by House leaders would commit $1.3 billion over the next six years to transportation, on top of $1.8 billion in borrowing that lawmakers already approved a year ago.

The Senate version would have repealed the money that was already approved, and instead set aside $5 billion over the next 20 years to pay off $3.5 billion in transportation bonds. The bonding plan earned unanimous, bipartisan support out of the chamber after Republicans agreed to delay a vote on the bonds until 2019. That would clear the ballot for groups outside the Capitol to go to voters with a proposed tax hike for roads this fall — something Democrats have long supported.

But top House Democrats say they’re still unwilling to commit as much existing revenue as the Senate version would require — $250 million a year for two decades. Transportation Chair Faith Winter worries that will lead to cuts to school funding the next time there’s an economic downturn.

“It’s like buying a new house without getting a new job first so you can afford it,” said Winter, a Democrat from the Denver suburb of Westminster. “It’s mortgaging our future.”

Senate Republicans say a long-term commitment is needed to guarantee that future lawmakers won’t cut funding for roads when money gets tight. as they have in years past. Adjusted for inflation, the state spends less on roads today than it did a decade ago.

“We can’t guarantee next year there won’t be a different priority with a different legislature,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, who sponsored the bonding bill.

Shortly before Democrats unveiled their proposal, a coalition of more than two dozen business groups sent a letter urging lawmakers to pass the measure as written. If lawmakers fail for a second consecutive year to pass a transportation bill, the letter said, they risk reinforcing “the cynical view” that politicians are incapable of solving big problems.

In an afternoon press briefing, House Speaker Crisanta Duran appeared unmoved. “I didn’t see any groups that were advocating for education funding sign on to the letter,” the Denver Democrat said.

Under the House proposal, 60 percent of the funding would go to state highway projects, while 25 percent would be set aside for local governments to spend on roads they maintain. The remaining 15 percent would be earmarked for alternate forms of transportation such as mass transit and bike lanes.

The legislative session ends May 9.
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Associated Press writer Jim Anderson contributed to this report.