As our state’s roads continue to get worse and worse, Coloradans are wondering when the legislature is finally going to make them a priority.
Earlier this month, a portion of U.S. Highway 36 collapsed, briefly shutting down the main connection between Boulder and Denver. The road was built only a couple of years ago through a public-private partnership – and the estimated cost to fix it is $20 million.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has direct oversight over these road projects, and the legislature has direct oversight over CDOT.
So, it’s worthwhile to look both at CDOT’s performance, and how much focus (or lack of focus) the legislature has been putting on fixing our roads.
A newly released state performance audit looked at CDOT from 2016-17 – and the findings are quite alarming. CDOT spent 37% – $582.7 million – more than its approved budget for 2016-17. In the real world, most of us would get fired from our jobs if we overspent our budgets by 37%.
But that wasn’t CDOT’s only problem. The agency did not properly track how $1.3 billion was spent. While not finding any blatant fraud, the audit did say there was “suspicious patterns and anomalies.”
This was happening around the same time that CDOT decided to build new offices for itself, costing taxpayers $150 million. With tone-deaf decisions like these, it’s no wonder why taxpayers continually shoot down statewide tax increases.
Yet, liberal special interest groups are trying to blame our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights for our transportation problems. Blaming TABOR equates to blaming voters, because TABOR simply leaves the decision on increasing taxes to the people.
Unsurprisingly, liberal legislators don’t like TABOR because they believe they know better. They think that Coloradans aren’t smart enough to understand why politicians need more of our money. They don’t want to have to convince a majority of voters, and they don’t want to be held accountable.
Even with TABOR, our state budget has grown to $32.5 billion. Back in 2005, Referendum C was supposed to be the solution to our state’s transportation needs. Ref C still provides over $2 billion each year into our state budget, yet our roads still crumble. Then in 2009, the legislature passed FASTER fees, which provides $250 million each year through higher car registration fees. And in 2017, the legislature “fixed” the Hospital Provider Fee, which freed up $600 million for roads and education. This all means we are spending almost $3 billion more per year since 2005, yet our roads are still in terrible condition. Why? Because the legislature makes promises to voters but doesn’t get the job done.
Now, liberal legislators are saying that we need to pass Proposition CC, which would take away our TABOR refunds forever. There are two fundamental problems with this. First, even Speaker Becker admitted there is no guarantee that the money will go towards fixing roads in the future. Second, in order to bond there has to be a guaranteed source of revenue, and bonding is the only way we can make big improvements to major highways like I-70 or I-25. If we have no way of knowing how much money Prop CC will bring in year-to-year, we simply can’t use it for bonding.
So, if Prop CC isn’t the answer, what is? First, we need to ensure that CDOT is doing a better job with the money it’s already getting. The legislature needs to make sure that CDOT implements the recommendations from the state audit so it can earn back the trust of taxpayers.
Second, the legislature needs to prioritize transportation spending in our state budget. Pushing it off until voters approve a tax increase is foolish. The money is there. Leadership is what’s lacking.
Michael Fields is the executive director of Colorado Rising Action.