EDITORIAL: Dems need to drive slowly around roads bill changes

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Democrats may be wisely ensuring that the state doesn’t over-commit on transportation spending in the next several years at the expense of schools and other programs, but an 11th-hour change to an acceptable bi-partisan compromise is now at serious risk.

After years of wrangling over whether to steal already insufficient funds from schools, health care and other public safety programs to fund desperately underfunded road programs, Democrats and Republicans finally reached common ground last month.

Funding transportation improvements has been an impossible job in Colorado for many reasons, chief among them has been Republicans’ unwillingness to ask voters for money. For years, some GOP in the House and Senate have maintained that Colorado has the money to fix and expand state roads and bridges. Democrats have said no excess funds exist.

Republicans have never proved them wrong.

Colorado revenues have long been and still are woefully short of all kinds of demands. Most recently, the state has slid into a public employee pension crisis. The state’s PERA program is forecast to be as much as $52 billion short of what it needs to pay out pensions for hundreds of thousands of retirees.

That, on top of a critically underfunded public school and college system, have long meant that if Colorado doesn’t raise taxes for roads some how, some way, all of Colorado will suffer.

Just as disheartening is the fact that Colorado faces a $9 billion shortfall in identified transportation needs, and that doesn’t even begin to pay for new projects needed to accommodate a rapidly growing state.

With Republicans controlling the state Senate and Democrats running the House, years of stalemate and recession have created a very real transportation funding crisis.

Finally, both sides agreed on a plan that would allow the state to borrow huge sums of money, but wait on implementing the loans until outside groups have a chance to ask voters for more cash.

The compromise makes sense. The measure had been scaled down to funnel $250 million from existing state coffers. The state budget, as recently announced, has seen substantial growth because of the economy and population growth. It’s doable, for now, without digging deeply into existing programs.

By parlaying that annual pool of new money into loans, the state would be able to spend about $5 billion on transportation projects — half of what’s desperately needed, not wanted.

It’s not a perfect or even compelling solution. But it’s the only thing that looks like it could make it through the Legislature and onto a willing governor’s desk.

A better solution would be a mixture of reasonable gas, registration, sales, hotel and over-the-road transport taxes, to ensure a revenue stream that shares the cost of transportation improvements among everyone who uses the system. Those taxes and fees, bolstered by reasonable tolls on strategic routes, such as I-70 between Denver and the ski areas, I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, and I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins, would allow for meaningful, sustained expansions that would substantially reduce gridlock.

But this isn’t the Legislature that’s going to find compromises like that. What they had agreed to was good enough, considering the political reality in Colorado.

Democrats should be lauded from stepping up as the adults in the room and ensuring a roads bill doesn’t further jeopardize already ailing state education and health programs. But it may be time to get what we can for now, and come back for a better solution when the political weather at the Capitol is better.