Transportation bill faces tough road | VailDaily.com

Transportation bill faces tough road

DENVER — Diane Mitsch Bush is doing some heavy lifting at the moment.

Mitsch Bush is a Steamboat Springs Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties in the Colorado House of Representatives. She's one of four primary sponsors of a bill that would ask voters to increase the state's sales tax to pay for transportation improvements around the state. The bill's other sponsors are House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver-area Democrat, and State Senators Kevin Grantham and Randy Baumgardner, both Republicans.

The bill is more than a request to voters. It's also a test of whether the two political parties can present something such as a united front when asking voters for additional money.

In a telephone interview, Mitsch Bush said negotiations between Duran and Grantham, the Senate President, took place across six months. Both parties had to make concessions. Republicans had to agree to the need for new tax revenues, while Democrats have had to agree to cuts in other areas of the state's transportation spending program.

outcome isn't clear

The outcome isn't clear, since the bill has to pass both the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. But the bill last week passed the House Transportation and Energy Committee — of which Mitsch Bush is the chairwoman. It goes Monday to the House Finance Committee.

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If if passes out of that committee, then passes the House, then the bill heads to the state Senate.

The bill's first committee hearing was Wednesday, and lasted more than seven hours, with 70 witnesses testifying. The vast majority of witnesses testified in favor of the bill.

Vail Valley Partnership President Chris Romer was one of the witnesses. He said support for the bill is coming from across the state, and across a broad swath of the economy.

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry supports the bill, as does the Colorado Motor Carriers Association — the trucking lobby. The Colorado Farm Bureau also supports the measure, as do Vail Resorts and Colorado Ski Country USA.

On the political side, supporters include Colorado Counties Incorporated, the lobbying group for the state's 64 counties. Club 20, a group that lobbies for Western Slope issues, also supports the bill.

"It was impressive," Romer said of the support for the bill.

While there's a lot of support, Romer said some groups do have reservations.

Colorado's state sales tax of 2.9 percent is the lowest in the nation, and the proposed increase would leave it near the bottom — California's state sales tax rate is 7 percent, and Utah's state rate is 5.9 percent.

On the other hand, sales tax revenue is the life's blood of towns. Adding town and county rates to the state rate adds up.

Romer said the Colorado Municipal League, the lobbying group for the state's towns and cities, has expressed some reservations about a sales tax increase. Romer said that group has talked in general terms about cities ratcheting down individual transportation sales taxes if the statewide measure passes.

"There's a very real discussion going on there," Romer said.

There could be some concern from businesses — Vail lodging owners and managers generally speak up whenever a lodging tax increase is proposed there — but Romer said the business community as a whole has been fairly quiet on the issue.

"I don't think a consumer makes (travel choices) based on sales tax, but overall cost is an issue," Romer said. "But if we want nice things — like roads — we need to find a way to pay for it."

No other options

Mitsch Bush said transportation funding is simply out of options to pay for improvements.

The legislature last week passed a budget with a $400 million shortfall. And, Mitsch Bush said, Colorado Governors for nearly 30 years have wrestled with ways to fund roads and other transportation projects.

Those various funding methods often include the state's gas tax, which hasn't increased in about 25 years.

Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece said many of the group's members favored using other sources for transportation funding. And there's been opposition from other Western Slope legislators to this bill.

"But the future shows us we'll have more alternative fuel vehicles using the highways, and we won't be capturing any revenue from those folks," Reece said.

After looking at the options, Reece said it's become clear that a sales tax is simply the best option.

Reece said she's worked on the bill for several months along with legislators. She said she's been impressed by the effort.

"I've never seen so much compromise, or been prouder of the leaders who have worked on this," Reece said. "Parts of the state don't like this much, but everybody's given a little for entire state."

Romer said that the need for road and bridge improvements affects more people than commuters or tourists.

Many Colorado-based companies have decided to do business in a higher-cost state, Romer said.

"State transportation is hugely important to business, and it's hugely important to us as well," he said.

While observers expect the bill to pass the House, Reece acknowledged the bill will face a tougher road in the Senate. But, she added, it's important to have two Western Slope legislators — Mitsch Bush and Baumgardner — as primary sponsors on the bill. And, she said, Club 20 will be "back in force" when the bill has its Senate hearings.

"We really need to rally all of Senators from Western Colorado to get it through," she said.

The high points

If passed in its current form, House Bill 17-1242 would:

• Raise the state’s sales tax by .62 percent.

• That increase would raise roughly $375 million per year.

• Of that, as much as $280 million per year would make payments on a $3.5 bond issue.

• That bond would fund transportation infrastructure projects already in a state priority plan.

• Of the remaining revenue, 70 percent would go to towns and counties, with 30 percent going toward “multi-modal” projects including trails, sidewalks and bus service.

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