Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The Colorado Statesman:
The Colorado Legislature this session is mired in an ideological traffic jam over budget issues that will impact funding for everything from education to Medicaid reimbursement. But for mountain-dwellers and Denver weekend warriors whose lifeline is Interstate 70, the biggest battle they care about is transportation funding.
Two lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle whose districts overlap in the Senate and the House and include counties right along I-70 have two dramatically different approaches to solving the long-running dilemma of finding adequate funds to maintain and perhaps expand the state’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure.
“We’re going to look at transportation funding again this year,” Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, told The Colorado Statesman. “We’ve already started pulling together stakeholder meetings from both sides of the chamber, both sides of the aisle, the governor’s office, businesses, trying to figure out a way to instead of just reacting to what’s going on with transportation, let’s try to be proactive and see if we can possibly find a way to fund transportation in the state of Colorado.”
Baumgardner’s Northwest Colorado district includes Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, Grand, Jackson and, most critically for opponents of the weekly I-70 parking lot, Summit counties.
With no general fund line item for transportation in the budget, the Colorado Department of Transportation relies on both state and federal gas tax revenues – neither of which have been increased (even for inflation) since the early 1990s – and FASTER vehicle licensing fees that were passed by the Legislature in 2009. Still, the state agency claims it’s upwards of $900 million behind on road maintenance and bridge-repair projects.
Democrats like Steamboat’s Diane Mitsch Bush want to free up about $100 million a year for the next three years for CDOT by having the state’s hospital provider fee not count as revenue and therefore trigger a tax refund under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Mitsch Bush, whose House district includes Route and Eagle counties, admits that’s a short-term fix, but says it’s better than what Republicans are proposing and will buy time until voters can decide the issue.
Mitsch Bush points to a failed GOP bill last session that would have floated transportation bonds.
“Last year, the basis for the bonding, which was a non-basis, was future federal transportation revenues,” Mitsch Bush told The Statesman. “That’s like saying, ‘Will you buy my bond? It’s based on pie in the sky.” Nobody’s going to buy those bonds. That’s not going to fund anything.”
While she’s yet to see what the Republicans will come up with this session, Mitsch Bush says she’s heard they’ll take another stab at floating bonds, but this year base them on $167 million a year in debt service on a CDOT bond package that was approved more than a decade ago and is up in 2017.
“If they’re basing the bonds on $167 million, for me that’s a nonstarter, because that means that deferred maintenance projects in the Intermountain [Transportation Planning Region], which is basically the I-70 corridor, aren’t going to get funded,” Mitsch Bush said. “I can’t support that.”
Baumgardner says bonds are just one of the funding mechanisms being considered.
“There’s a lot of conversation on how we’ll do this: bonding, tax credits, I don’t know,” Baumgardner said. “We are just starting that process right now, looking at ways to do that – possibly with some general fund money in the mix as well. That’s even part of the conversation. We’ll just have to wait and see how things progress.”
One thing Baumgardner has definitively ruled out is the Democrat’s hospital provider fee fix, particularly after a memo from the Office of Legal Services indicated it was unconstitutional when it was attempted last session.
“That research basically was requested by a Democratic legislator, so that information was out there, and now they’re saying legislators have the right to interpret the constitution the way they see it,” Baumgardner said. “Well, I’m not too sure that’s the way it works because the constitution is pretty well what the people voted on and also what it says. Interpretation is what lawyers are looking at as far as what’s constitutional and what’s not.”
Mitsch Bush calls the fee, imposed at the request of hospitals at the height of the recession to offset growing indigent costs, a pass-through that is collected by the state, goes to the federal government and is then matched and returned to the state, which in turn sends it back to the hospitals. In no way should it be considered state revenue under TABOR.
“It’s so disingenuous for these guys to say, ‘I want to fund transportation, but, oh by the way, I’m totally opposed to hospital provider fee,” Mitsch Bush said. “On our side we’re very unified in terms of we’ve got to do something about the budget, we’ve got to fund transportation, we’ve got to fund education, and the only way we see in the near future is the hospital provider fee fix.”
“That will buy us some time to engage in this Building a Better Colorado process or whatever it is the voters want to come up with [for long-term transportation funding].”
Mitsch Bush also find herself at odds with Baumgardner over her I-70 traction bill, which passed the Democrat-controlled House last session but was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate. She’s introduced the bill again this session (pdf). Baumgardner opposed the bill last year, saying it was not needed.
“CDOT has done all it can do, because under current law you are only required to have [adequate snow tires or chains] after a Code 15 has been called. Well that takes about an hour generally, and sometimes more, and by that time Vail Pass is closed,” Mitsch Bush said. “It’s confusing to people.”
This year her bill, which doesn’t set up check points or impose new fines, would clarify that adequate traction is required for non-commercial vehicles on I-70 whenever snowy, icy conditions exist.