debt, Gold Dome, Peter Blake, TABOR, Taxes, Transportation

Blake: What to do with an empty state prison?

Legislators recently learned that the Colorado Department of Transportation plans to spend $150 million on construction of what it calls its headquarters “campus” in Denver and two regional “campuses.”

Campus seems to be the new word for what used to be government offices. In August the Denver Water Department — the one organization that can make CDOT look like pikers — voted to spend $195 million on the redevelopment of its 34.6-acre “campus” at 1600 W. 12th Avenue.   (Watch out for next year’s water rates.)

Doesn’t working at the CDOT or Denver Water campus sound like the joyful recapture of a long-lost youth?   Football scholarships! Friday night pep rallies! Fraternity parties! Co-ed dorms!

But no crippling student loans to pay off, just paychecks to cash. “Go State!”

CDOT’s plans came as a surprise to lawmakers because they weren’t consulted. Apparently, under a 1990 law, CDOT and higher education can finance capital projects without a legislative appropriation. The department is going straight to state Treasurer Walker Stapleton for a $2 million bond issue to pay for the planning of the larger construction bond issue.

Lawmakers were particularly upset because CDOT declined to support a bill last session authorizing $3.5 billion in transportation bonds to be paid back with half of CDOT’s federal gas tax revenues. It failed.

“I have a huge concern that that they can say ‘no’ to roads, bridges and public safety and ‘yes’ to bonding for themselves,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Cadman told The Denver Post.

If indeed CDOT has the financial ability to finance the project, the state must agree to the issuance of bonds, said Deputy Treasurer Jon Forbes.

“I can understand [CDOT] having some flexibility to manage without constant legislative review,” Cadman told CompleteColorado. “But this has given us an indication that the authority is a little too broad.”

In a memo dated last May 20, CDOT said upgrading its offices will help the department “brand itself as the largest engineering employer in the state of Colorado, as well as recruit and train top level employees.”

The branding comment rankled Cadman. “That supports their mission but their mission ought to be transportation,” he said.icon_op_ed

Should the law be changed? Perhaps legislators should keep tighter control over CDOT and higher ed ambitions. On the other hand, they’ve had their own problems with capital construction.

Back in 2003, Republicans — under pressure from corrections officials — wanted to build a new high-security prison in Cañon City, but Democrats favored building new medical school near the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora. Each party thought the other’s proposal was a waste of money. They reached a classic legislative compromise: Instead of saving money by building neither, they lumped the projects together in a single bill and overspent by building both.

Sens. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, and Peggy Reeves, D-Fort Collins, tried hard to put the financing on the ballot. “If we’re going to put people in debt for 25 years, they need to have a vote in the process,” said McElhany.

Senate Majority Leader Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, led the fight to use lease-purchase agreements that would need no public input. Apparently addressing school children in the gallery, she said, “It’s your money. It’s also your future. It’s good-paying jobs. It’s going to bring us out of the doldrums.”

Anderson’s side won and the legislature voted to use lease-purchase agreements.

(Anderson, now retired, joined numerous Democrats as a plaintiff in a 2011 anti-TABOR lawsuit. It claims that giving the people the right to vote on taxes violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee that the states have a “republican” form of government. The suit is still alive, but barely.)

Taxpayers will end up paying $208 million for Colorado State Penitentiary II, aka Centennial South. It consists of 948 solitary-confinement cells. Part of it was briefly used starting in 2010, but prison population unexpectedly went down and solitary confinement fell out of favor. The prison was closed completely two years later and sits empty today.

Hmmm. We have one government department that needs new space, and another that has way too much.

Get the picture? Why not move CDOT into the empty prison, thus freeing up $150 million for highways?   You say it’s not reasonable to put CDOT employees in a prison? But what are solitary-confinement cells but private offices? You don’t have to lock the door.

Each cell comes with a computerized kiosk — I am not making this up –that was supposed to let prisoners order library books, watch TV, take classes make phone calls to relatives. Easy enough to convert to regular government use.

Each office also comes with its own executive washroom — very close at hand!

CDOT could call it the Norma Anderson No-Doldrums Cañon City Campus.

Do I have to do all the heavy thinking around here?

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month 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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