Hickenlooper wants cities to lobby for a transportation tax, but Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are on a collision course

Hickenlooper hopes to see a concrete proposal from the legislature by the end of March. Lots of time to get on it.

Cars travel down 14th Street in the Central Business District. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)central business district; traffic; cars; denver; kevinjbeaty; colorado; denverite;
A highway sign impaled by a highway sign pole on I-25. (Colorado State Patrol)
This is a metaphor. (Colorado State Patrol)

Gov. John Hickenlooper has been telling anyone and everyone who will listen that Colorado needs a new funding source for roads. He repeated that call Thursday in a speech to the Colorado Municipal League where he asked cities to lobby their legislators to put together a tax package that can be put before the voters in November.

But no specific package has been introduced yet, and the public remarks of Democratic and Republican legislators this week show the two sides pulling further apart, not closer together.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran told reporters Wednesday that she’s “cautiously optimistic” about reaching an agreement, but she also said that any transportation package can’t harm K-12 education.

“We want to invest in transportation, but not at the expense of our kids,” Duran said. “It is imperative that we don’t continue to put a Band-Aid on our fiscal situation.”

What Duran is saying is that transportation funding needs to come from new money, not from cutting existing programs. Duran also revived the idea of reclassifying the hospital provider fee. Democrats had downplayed this idea before the start of the session because Republicans killed it last year, and they’re not any keener on it this year.

The hospital provider fee is collected on hospital beds and is used to get federal matching dollars for Medicaid and to reimburse hospitals for uncompensated care. The problem is that it adds to the total budget and triggers limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which in turn requires the state to refund money to taxpayers from other parts of the budget. If it were reclassified as an enterprise fund — essentially a stand-alone business of sorts — it wouldn’t affect the rest of the budget.

Republicans have said all along they think that roads funding should come mostly from the existing budget and in the form of bonds. If there are new taxes, existing taxes should be cut to offset some of the impact.

Republicans said Thursday that Duran’s comments undermine negotiations on the transportation package.

“Speaker Duran’s call for more taxpayer revenue without any offsetting tax reductions is a complete departure from constructive conversations with Republicans and shows she and the Democrats have given up on a fiscally responsible solution to transportation funding,” Assistant Republican Leader Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican, said in a statement. “On day-one she called for a ‘bipartisan consensus on a statewide transportation plan,’ yet her comments yesterday severely jeopardized transportation negotiations, and shows Democrats are unwilling to prioritize Colorado’s continually-increasing revenue for its most pressing needs.”

Hickenlooper hopes to see a concrete proposal from the legislature by the end of March. Lots of time to get on it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.