Colorado voters have a choice this election between two transportation funding measures. Proposition 109 focuses on road and bridge infrastructure, without a tax or fee increase, while Proposition 110 uses roads as a hook for a massive sales tax increase, a slush fund for cities and counties, and mystery transit projects mostly aimed at Metro Denver.
Prop 109, known as Fix Our Damn Roads, requires the Colorado Department of Transportation to bond $3.5 billion to address critical road and bridge projects around Colorado. The projects are listed right in the measure, and the money can’t be used for anything else. The carrying cost on the bonds is $260 million per year over 20 years. Not only is Colorado already running a budget surplus, but due to changes in the federal tax code, Coloradans will be paying more in state income taxes, creating an annual windfall for state government that will be more than $800 million in just a few short years. It will take only a portion of that windfall to pay for the bonding.
In 1999, then Governor Bill Owens supported a similar measure, bonding for critical highway projects, including the I-25 T-REX expansion. Those projects were all completed and the bonds were paid off, all without a tax increase. Prop 109 simply follows that successful model, adjusted for inflation. This is why Governor Owens has endorsed Prop 109.
In contrast, Proposition 110 would raise the state sales tax by a whopping 21 percent.
This would push the combined sales tax rate in places like Northglenn and Longmont up over 9 percent, Eagle and Basalt over 10 percent, and Silverton and Snowmass over 11 percent.
Not only are sales taxes extremely regressive, meaning they disproportionally burden lower-income people, but higher state sales taxes will make it that much harder to pass local tax measures for local priorities. This is one of the reasons that Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers has endorsed Prop 109, and opposes Prop 110.
Prop 110 also creates a slush fund for cities and counties to tap for whatever mystery projects they might consider transportation-related, meaning that state taxpayers will be subsidizing the wish lists of local governments. But as Mayor Suthers has pointed out, “Local governments should pay for local infrastructure and state government should pay for state infrastructure.” We couldn’t agree more.
A July 18 presentation to the Transportation Commission and the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee on how to spend the potential new Prop 110 (then Initiative 153) sales tax loot recommends strategically deploying the funds for maximum benefit by focusing on “Denver Metro arterials, NW Denver, North I-25 and urban areas.”
One of the considerations noted in the presentation even asked, “With a large share of funds going to Denver Metro and NW Denver specifically, is that ok?” In other words, the rest Colorado gets higher taxes, and the short end of the stick.
The presentation went on to recommend that 77 percent of the “Multimodal Bond Fund” created by Prop 110 go to the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) region. Yup, the lion’s share is intended to go to nine Front Range counties.
One of the many recommended projects, coming in at around $110 million, is buses with dedicated transit lanes up and down east Colfax Avenue in Denver. If 110 passes, taxpayers state-wide will for the first time be directly subsidizing local transit. Denver is already part of the Regional Transportation District (RTD), which has its own regional sales tax, and a budget of $2 billion.
No one should be under any illusion that Prop 110 is anything more than a bait-and-switch designed to ladle large amounts of transit gravy over an already fattened Metro Denver. The rest of the state can scrap for the leftovers.
If you’d rather see the roads fixed and transportation re-prioritized in the state budget, all without a tax increase, then the choice should be easy.
Mike Krause is director of public affairs at the Independence Institute, and one of the proponents of Proposition 109.