In November, Colorado voters will consider two very different ballot propositions with the same goal in mind: fixing the state’s broken-down and congested roads.
The supporters of two ballot propositions voters will consider agree the state has been severely underfunding its roads for years. But they have very different ideas about how to fix that.
Proposition 110, backed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, raises the sales tax statewide to fund bond purchases paid back over 20 years. It’s known as “Let’s Go Colorado.”
Proposition 109, backed by the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, doesn’t raise taxes and instead orders the state to purchase bonds to fund projects. It has a more colorful name: “Fix Our Damn Roads.”
“The reason we chose the title ‘Fix Our Damn Roads’ is because ‘Hey Legislature, Do Your Damn Jobs and Fix Our Damn Roads’ was too long of a title. So we shortened it up,” Independence Institute president Jon Caldara said. “It’s very simple. Let’s do specified road projects without raising taxes.”
Rather than raising taxes, Caldara’s proposal would bond up to $3.5 billion for projects then call on the legislature to shift budget priorities to pay the bonds back. That’s a problem for the supporters of the other proposition.
“It’s going to require the state to take resources from someplace else in the state’s budget to be able to fund it,” said Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “You can call it ‘Fix Our Damn Roads’ but the truth is it’s probably ‘Screw Our Damn Schools,’ because they’re going to have to help fund it.”
Brough supports Let’s Go Colorado, which would generate revenue by raising sales taxes by about six cents on a $10 purchase. But the distinction between the two propositions is not as simple as tax increase vs. no tax increase.
First, Let’s Go Colorado would generate more new funding for state highway projects than Fix Our Damn Roads, according to an analysis by the Colorado Department of Transportation. CDOT’s analysis found Let’s Go would generate a net increase of $7 billion in state road funding compared to a net increase of $2 billion for Fix Our Damn Roads.
CDOT says its list of high-priority road projects could likely be funded by Let’s Go, but a smaller list of projects would be funded by the opposing proposal. And Fix Our Damn Roads gives CDOT less time to get the work done, so an agency spokesperson said it will narrow the list of projects included in the ballot language to shovel-ready projects if that proposition passes.
Another key difference: Fix Our Damn Roads only funds repairs on state roads maintained by CDOT. By contrast, Let’s Go Colorado would generate billions for local governments to use on transportation projects.
But Caldara points out there’s no guarantee that money will be used specifically for roads.
“A big portion of this goes to a slush fund for cities to do whatever the cities want to do. It might be roads, it might be buses … it could be bike paths,” Caldara said.
“Voters are guaranteed that the money can only go into the transportation system, there’s no other alternative,” Brough said. “Local priorities could govern. I’ll give you an example … We had rural communities talk about how senior citizens can’t get to doctor appointments. So, what you might see them fund is a van service that could assist those seniors in moving them around multiple counties.”
“Voters this fall have a very clear choice. They can either have specified road projects without raising taxes, or they can have mystery projects and a massive tax increase,” Caldara said. “Polling is pretty clear that there is very little appetite for a statewide tax increase for something that the state should be providing with the money they have.”
Caldara argues there are plenty of places where the legislature could reallocate funding in the budget to pay for road projects without needing a tax increase, and argues the legislature will have more money to work with as federal tax reforms will give the state a tax revenue “windfall."
A legislative analysis of Let’s Go estimated the average Colorado family would pay about $130 more in sales tax over the course of the year, depending on how much they buy. Brough pointed out tourists and visitors to the state will help pick up the tab for road improvements if the sales tax increase passes.
“We have not increased our taxes to fund anything for the state of Colorado in 25 years. We say no. The only two exceptions to that have been sin taxes: tobacco and marijuana. So the truth is we are pretty frugal in Colorado and pretty careful about what we ask for. And this is one of those times that we really desperately need it,” Brough said.
If both propositions fail, the legislature has already decided to ask voters again next year for more road funding in the form of bonds.