Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, at a campaign event in Edwards late last week, told RealVail.com he’s encouraged by the bipartisan progress he’s seeing from the State Legislature on the long-gridlocked topic of transportation funding.
Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran last week announced a bipartisan deal on a sales tax increase that would go to the voters in November if it passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited and will leave office in 2019.
The House Bill 1242 proposal is for a 20-year statewide sales tax increase to 3.52 percent from the current rate of 2.9 percent to provide a revenue stream for $3.5 billion in bonds to expand Interstate 70 and 25 as well as provide discretionary local transportation funding.
“I’m encouraged; I think it’s a good first step,” said Johnston, who is from Vail and spent two terms in the state Senate. “It’s going to be a process. What I like is that we’ve got to do something. What I like is that there’s some bipartisan support for it. I like that there’s a focus on transit, multi-modal, which is nice, and that there’s a funding stream to support bonding because there wasn’t previously.”
Democrats and Republicans have been a loggerheads for years, trying unsuccessfully to carve out dedicated transportation funding as critical infrastructure has continued to deteriorate. Johnston acknowledges the legislative process could be tough.
“It’s a good potential package,” Johnston said. “The question is whether we can get it through both chambers and the voters to pass it. I was encouraged by the progress. I want to read the bill and see how it goes through the Legislature.”
Some conservative Republicans have already lined up against the bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Vail Valley state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush and Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner. Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg has floated a much more modest alternative to the plan, which would only fund a $1.3 billion bond package.
Colorado Department of Transportation officials say they are facing a $1 billion-a-year budget shortfall just to safely maintain current road and bridge infrastructure. The HB 1242 sales tax increase would produce close to $700 million a year in added revenues.
Johnston says Republicans need to get realistic about where that money will come from if not in the form of a tax increase.
“The question for them is what is your plan to solve transportation if not this,” Johnston said. “They want to carve some out of the existing budget and they’d love to say Medicaid, but tell me who the people are you want to cut off from health services if you want to do that because $700 million a year is a lot of money.”