New roads without a tax increase, or undetermined projects with a 21 percent sales tax increase. That’s the choice Colorado voters will have this fall between Proposition 109 and Proposition 110.
The choice couldn’t be simpler. Prop 109, Fix Our Damn Roads, requires the Colorado Department of Transportation to bond $3.5 billion to immediately build 66 of the most needed road and bridge projects around Colorado. The bonds will be paid for by the surplus revenues pouring into the state, not a tax increase.
Unlike the tax-increasing Prop 110, these projects are listed in the actual ballot language, so there can be no bait-and-switch. That is, unlike 110, you know exactly what you are voting on.
A quick history lesson might be helpful. In 1999 then Gov. Bill Owens used this same strategy when we voted “yes” for the T-Rex projects which put another lane on Interstate 25 to the Tech Center and 21 other projects around the state without raising taxes. Detractors then said we couldn’t build more roads without a tax increase. Yet we easily did. Now those bonds have been completely paid off.
But with so many more people coming to Colorado and the traffic getting so bad, and with surplus revenue flooding state coffers, we need to do it again. It’s one of the reasons Bill Owens has joined me in supporting Prop 109.
For the last decade the state legislature has failed to put any real funding into new road projects, even while the state budget has ballooned. The legislature has found money to expand Medicaid to the point where one out of every four Coloradans is on Medicaid, but they wouldn’t fund roads.
Our Department of Transportation found money to build a new headquarters and build multi-million-dollar bike paths, but we’re told there’s no money to build roads. There was even money to give movie producers millions of dollars in incentives to make a movie that didn’t even take place in Colorado, but there’s no money to build roads?
Like so many Coloradans trapped in endless traffic, I’m very skeptical. Building and maintaining our state roads and bridges is a core function of state government which seems to have been lost in the state bureaucracy.
What the special interests promoting the competing tax-increase proposal don’t like talking about is the fact that Colorado taxpayers are already going to pay a large tax increase they didn’t vote for. The new federal tax code under the Trump tax cuts lowers the income tax most of us will pay, but only on the federal level. It has the reverse effect on our Colorado state income taxes. Since there are fewer deductions allowed on the federal level, on average our “Federal Taxable Income” goes up. Your Colorado state taxes are figured on that number. As that number goes up, so does your state income tax.
Colorado’s Legislative Council predicts that within a few years we’ll collectively be paying almost $900 million more a year in state income taxes. That is a huge windfall for the state. By voting for Fix Our Damn Roads, Prop 109, you are telling the legislature to spend less than a third of the windfall on building new roads. The cost of the bonds is only $260 million a year.
Or to look at it another way, Proposition 109 tells the state to reallocate less than one percent of its massive budget to roads. We all could find one percent of our household budget if we needed to. Do you really believe the state couldn’t do the same?
The promoters of the tax increase want you to raise the state sales tax by 21 percent, hurting working families. It would raise the total sales tax in places like Commerce City to 10 percent. As a mayor myself I oppose this idea because it will raise sales taxes so high that if a city needs a local sales tax increase for anything from essential public infrastructure to more fire or police services, or new parks, it won’t be able to. Local governments should pay for local infrastructure and state government should pay for state infrastructure.
By no mean is Fix Our Damn Roads a silver bullet for every transportation challenge we have. But it also isn’t a Christmas wish list disguised as a transportation tax increase.
We don’t need to punish working families who are already struggling with high health care costs and soaring housing prices with a large, regressive tax increase while we have so much revenue flooding state coffers. Let’s Fix Our Damn Roads without a tax increase.
John Suthers is the mayor of Colorado Springs and the former attorney general for Colorado.
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