Peter Blake

Road is paved for 2014 ballot question on sales tax – not gas

If taxes are inevitable, user taxes — like those on gasoline — make more sense than others. Drivers pay the governments that own the roads more or less in direct proportion for their use and abuse of those roads.

But voters apparently aren’t rational, in Colorado or elsewhere.

That’s why the Colorado Department of Transportation, plus groups representing practically every city and county in the state, are leaning toward an increase in the state sales tax to raise an extra $605 million a year for road repairs.

Yes, just one year after you’ve dealt this November with the proposed $1 billion increase in the state income tax to finance public schools, you may be called upon to vote on a 0.7 percent boost in the state sales tax, currently 2.9 percent.

Jim Gunning, mayor of Lone Tree, is head of MPACT64, the umbrella group coordinating the highway tax plan. He and his compatriots believed an increase in the state gas tax — 22 cents a gallon since 1991 — was the fairest, most rational plan.

icon_op_edBut polling for it was “terrible,” he said. “For whatever reason voters do not like the gas tax,” not only in Colorado but across the country. “Voters have disconnected themselves from the fact that the gas tax is a user fee for transportation. It’s disappointing, but it’s reality.

“And I live in the world of reality here,” added Gunning, who doubles as a pilot for United Airlines.

Only two-thirds of the $605 million would go to highways. Mass transit, which continues to be popular in polling, is scheduled to get the other third. This presumably is to satisfy the Regional Transportation District, which has been flirting with, but backed away from, several opportunities to hold its own tax hike election. RTD would get most, but not all, of the mass transit funds.

The part going for highways would be split about the way that Colorado’s Highway Users Tax Fund is already split — 60 percent to the state, 22 percent to the counties and 18 percent to the cities.

Recent polling, Gunning said, indicates people prefer the sales tax, presuming it doesn’t cost them more than an extra $65 a year. That’s what the 0.7 percent is expected to raise per person.

The tax would sunset after 10 or 15 years — another selling point. And the projects to be funded would be spelled out in the voter’s guide, or “blue book.”

But for the projects to have legal standing, they’d also have to be spelled out in the text of the proposal.

How to get it on the ballot? Apparently it is more likely to be by a citizen initiative, just like the income tax proposal this year. That’s more expensive than convincing the legislature to put it on the ballot, but signature gathering is considered a good way to soften up the electorate.

The gas levy has been a “declining tax,” noted Catherine Marinelli, director of the Metro Mayors Caucus, a member of MPACT64. It’s not indexed to inflation, and doesn’t get enough from drivers of hybrids and plug-ins. But people don’t like the possibility of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) taxes either, she said, since logging VMT may mean Big Brotherish devices that track not only how far you’ve traveled, but where.

Still, gas taxes are fairer for transportation expenses than general sales taxes, which are also paid by people who hardly ever go anywhere. What’s more, as Marinelli noted, gas taxes are in a sort of “lock box” that the legislature has a hard time raiding. General sales taxes meant for transportation, on the other hand, are fair game for snatching every time lawmakers are hard-pressed to pay for education or Medicaid shortfalls.

But the unpopularity of gas taxes has been reflected in previous votes as well as in polling. Back in 1997, Gov. Roy Romer went all out for the Colorado Transportation Network’s plan to increase the state gas tax by 5 cents, impose an additional $10 auto registration fee and levy an additional $100 on new cars. It was supposed to raise $2.4 billion over 13 years.

But Romer backed off from the endorsement after it became known there was more money available for roads than previously thought. The proposal went down in flames by a 4-to-1 margin that November.

Will the fate of the education tax affect the MPACT64’s decision on whether to go ahead with the transportation sales tax in 2014? Probably not, said Gunning. The go-no go decision will follow new polling early next year.

The fate of the education tax isn’t likely to affect the people’s response to a transportation proposal because “there’s some emotionalism mixed in with education that you don’t get with a piece of concrete,” he said.

It will be interesting to see what stand Hickenlooper takes on the transportation tax proposal, if any. He’s no Roy Romer, who often strongIy backed proposals the voters didn’t like. But they voted for Romer anyway, somehow separating the man from his positions.

There’s one group that would especially love the sales tax proposal: The trucking industry. And that may be its biggest problem, the one best exploited by foes. Trucks cause more wear and tear on roads than other vehicles and should pay proportionately for them. But they wouldn’t, under this plan.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for Contact him at You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and


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