DENVER — Coming soon to a petition near you: Fix Our Damn Roads.
With last Friday’s deadline to file a lawsuit against proposed citizen’s initiatives now passed, the possibility of voters getting a say in how new roads get paid for is 98,492 signatures away from reality.
The bill that is the brain child of Jon Caldara, President of the Independence Institute (II), and Mike Krause, Director of Public Affairs for II*, cleared the Title Board on April 28.
The Independence Institute is a Denver-based free market think tank.
Proposals 21 and 22 are now in the hands of the Secretary of State’s office, who will create the official petition, and then it will be up to Caldara and his crew to get enough signatures to put the idea on the 2017 ballot.
The number of signatures needed for a successful petition, according to Colorado law, is 5 percent of the number of people who cast votes for the Secretary of State in the last election.
State law allows six months to collect signatures, but the petitions must be turned in three months before the election, that leaves just under three months in this case.
The two different initiatives would task state lawmakers with reallocating priorities within the existing budget to pay back either $2.5 billion or $3.5 billion, respectively, in revenue anticipation notes over a 20-year term, depending on which initiative the men move forward with.
The money would fund the Colorado Department of Transportation’s most critical needs.
Caldara’s measures initially were in response to House Bill 17-1242, which would have asked voters to approve a 21 percent sales tax increase to repay similar transportation bonds. That bill died in the Senate Finance Committee.
Several other attempts at transportation bills were also proposed in both the Senate and the House, but all have died.
Senate Bill 17-267, which has multiple purposes, will use Certificates of Participation (COPs) to fund nearly $2 billion in road and capital expenditures in rural Colorado, if it clears third reading in the House on the final day of this session, Wednesday. Unlike Caldara’s measure, SB 267 doesn’t spell out which projects would be funded.
At the Title Board hearing two weeks ago, Caldara’s proposals were opposed by The Colorado Contractors Association, which also has six proposals working their way through the citizen’s initiative process — all of which are similar to HB 1242.
The main arguments against Fix Our Damn Roads was that it violated the single subject requirement under the state constitution and that the use of the phrase “without raising taxes” was a campaign slogan and not legal ballot wording.
Mark Grueskin, the attorney for the Contractors Association, argued that while the initiative requires the issuance of bonds, it doesn’t provide for funding thus creating a second subject by way of reduction in state spending on other programs.
“There is no way you could float those bonds without having a revenue source to repay them,” Grueskin said. “You would have no way of knowing that as a voter. Therefore, the combination of the two subjects is going to surprise some folks who vote for new bonds for transportation improvements without having any idea they are simultaneously authoring a reduction in state programs.”
Caldara argued that was not the case and that Grueskin’s points were nothing more than talking points for a campaign.
“It’s a false dichotomy to say we need to show that we’re going to be cutting funding someplace else,” Caldara said. “What that would mean is that we have a stagnant model inside our government that means there cannot be savings by changing the way we do things. There are all sorts of ways to do this. So, to say the only way to do this is to cut services elsewhere, we don’t know. It will be up to the legislature to figure that out.”
Shayne Madsen, the attorney representing Caldara, added that it gives legislature permissive direction to use their discretion to reallocate among state budgetary items.
“It is not a mandatory and permanent reduction,” Madsen said.
The Title Board, which is made up of three people representing the Legislative Services Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, agreed with Caldara.
Grueskin then argued the same point only using the ballot title wording of “without raising taxes” as the main focus.
“The notion that without raising taxes is somehow indicative of what is contained in this measure is incorrect,” Grueskin said. “We suggest that at bare minimum that phrase be expanded to make it clear there is no source of revenue.”
Grueskin wanted to add “or new source of revenue” to the wording, calling the existing wording a throwaway phrase for political positioning and not voter understanding.
Caldara told the board their job was to accurately reflect the measure in the ballot title, and it’s not up to him to determine if there is or isn’t going to be new revenue that comes without raising taxes, such as federal funding.
“We said without raising taxes because that’s what’s in the measure,” Caldara said. “It is up to the legislature to decide how to fund this. Maybe it’s through budget cuts, maybe it’s through innovation, maybe it’s through reprioritization. But to say it needs to be identified, does not reflect the proposal. This is a crucial part of this proposal that it does not raise taxes.”
The board sided with Caldara again saying there is a likelihood that there will be competing measures on the ballot, with one requiring a tax increase and one requiring no new taxes.
“This is also the context of the legislative debate as well,” said David Blake from the Attorney General’s Office. “Everyone wants to fund new roads, but do we want use new revenue to pay for it or reallocate existing revenue?”
Caldara estimates it would take dedicating just 2 percent of the state’s $27 million budget to roads to pay off the bonds.
“If we are successful, voters can decide in the election this fall if they want to re-allocate existing dollars to roads,” Caldara said.
* Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute.