House gives initial OK to Colorado roads funding bill

DENVER (AP) — Colorado's legislative leaders knew they faced a hard sell when they unveiled a bipartisan measure to ask voters for a sales tax hike and a bond issue to generate billions of dollars for transportation.

That hard sell was on full display before the Democrat-led House initially approved the bill on party lines Thursday. Even after that approval, Republicans kept trying to change the bill.

Minority Republicans peppered House Speaker Crisanta Duran, one of the bill's sponsors, with questions about the bill, which could generate more than $13 billion over 20 years to tackle a $9-billion-and-growing backlog in roads projects.

The legislation would ask voters to raise $375 million each year over a 20-year period for high-priority state roads, bridges and other infrastructure; issue $3.5 billion in bonds for construction; and allocate millions of dollars for local busing and transit needs. It would raise the state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.5 percent — about 3 1/2 cents on the dollar. It also would lower vehicle registration fees.

Republicans insisted the bill tell voters exactly what projects it would pay for.

They also:

—Criticized a possible loophole they said would allow the Colorado Department of Transportation to use the funds to build toll express lanes; the department insists the lanes reduce congestion, but Republicans called that "double taxation" for voters authorizing a tax hike to build the lanes in the first place.

—GOP lawmakers objected to creating a new government panel to oversee funding for non-roads projects, including local transit needs; the transportation department can do that, they argued.

—They insisted any construction projects be awarded to Colorado-based firms.

—They both objected to a tax hike and worried about its local impact. Colorado Springs, for instance, has raised city taxes to pay for its own roads projects, and city leaders warn a state tax hike would bring its residents' own tax burden to close to 9 percent.

On Thursday, the two parties clashed most over toll roads and what's going to be built.

Republicans have seized on remarks by Shailen Bhatt, executive director of CDOT, that private-public partnerships and express toll lanes are part of the equation in relieving congested highways.

"If there is going to be success, you're going to need the people of El Paso County to support this measure," said GOP Rep. Larry Liston. When it comes to tolls, he said, "my constituents have real angst."

Duran and Democratic co-sponsor Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush insisted an amendment barred the use of new bill funds for toll projects — but had no impact on other projects.

"If this tax doesn't pass, we're going to have a whole lot more toll lanes," Duran said.

Bhatt said Thursday that express toll revenue "helps to offset some of the cost of the construction, management and operations of the lanes allowing us to do more with limited resources as well as a strategy to ensure that we keep the lanes moving into the future."

Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Sen. Randy Baumgardner also sponsored the bill, much to the chagrin of fellow Republicans who oppose tax hikes and support bonding to fix Colorado's roads.

For that reason, its prospects in the GOP-led Senate are highly uncertain. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg has proposed an alternative bill calling, in part, for transportation bonds backed by existing revenues. That bill, too, has Democrat co-sponsors.

Democrats long have insisted that without more revenue, there's no money to issue bonds. Colorado hasn't raised a state gasoline tax that's supposed to pay for roads from 22 cents per gallon since 1991.

A final House vote is needed before the Senate gets the bill.

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