DENVER — The future of a controversial amendment to a bill ostensibly about expanding a fully subsidized-transit program appears to hinge on the single vote of State Sen. Kevin Priola, D-Brighton.
On Thursday, Priola voted with his party against a bipartisan effort to kill a conference committee amendment to House Bill 23-1101, on a 17-17 vote, with Democrat Sen. Lisa Cutter excused.
A conference committee is a process in which members of both the Senate and the House work together to come to a consensus on a topic that the two chambers disagree on.
With Democrats holding a solid majority the legislature, it’s a rare opportunity that Republicans win a vote. Democrats voting with all 12 Republican senators to kill the amendment were Joann Ginal, Kyle Mullica, Dylan Roberts, Robert Rodriguez and Rachel Zenzinger.
Opponents of the amendment say it will severely hurt transportation funding for rural Colorado and small metropolitan planning areas — all of which Priola represents in his new district.
Priola, who for his first six years in the state senate represented Senate District 25 as a Republican, now serves in Senate District 13, which includes a large rural portion of Weld County, where voters never actually got to cast a ballot to elect him. Instead, Priola acquired the seat via the redistricting process in 2021 that drew him out of his previous, much more liberal district in Adams County.
The state’s constitution says a sitting legislator cannot be drawn out of office, and since former Sen. John Cooke, who was elected to represent SD13 in 2014, was term limited, Priola took over by default. In addition, last fall before the 2022 election, Priola switched his affiliation to Democrat.
Amendment stirs controversy
HB-1101 started off with one goal: To change a grant program that offers free transit vouchers. But when it hit the Senate, fellow Adams County Sen. Faith Winter — the Democrat who took over Priola’s old seat when he was drawn into Senate District 13 — slapped an amendment on it that Representatives in the House didn’t like.
That amendment said that no later than July 1, 2024, the transportation commission shall update its rules governing the statewide transportation process and transportation planning regions to “adjust the boundaries of the transportation planning regions in a manner that ensures that the state’s population is proportionally and equitably represented on the transportation advisory committee.”
When the bill made its way back to the House to approve the Senate amendment, it failed. That is when the conference committee was formed to make Winter’s amendment more palatable.
Even though Republican Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, who represents portions of both Weld and Larimer counties, was on that committee, the result still wasn’t what rural leaders wanted. The population requirement was removed, but most everything else remained the same, and still causing a representation issue, Kirkmeyer argues.
“The equitable language in this bill still leaves me to believe and members of the state transportation advisory committee to believe that (The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is) working to lessen the vote of the rural transportation regions and thereby lessoning and silencing as best as they can the voice of rural Colorado, when it comes to transportation,” Kirkmeyer said.
Priola at odds with other Weld legislators
Since his his switch to become a Democrat, Priola has been at odds with other Weld County legislators, and a majority of his constituents, in the heavily Republican Weld County. Thursday’s vote was no different, as the motion to dissolve the conference committee, effectively killing its amendment, and appoint a new committee was made by Kirkmeyer and Supported by Sen. Byron Pelton, R-Sterling, who also represents a large swath of Weld County.
Kirkmeyer and Pelton argued that the amendment could allow at some point lead to weighted voting for areas of the state that are highly populated or set rules restricting who is allowed to serve on the state transportation advisory committee (STAC).
“It takes away rural Colorado’s voice,” Pelton said. “It could possibly be weighted voting if they go with population; we need a voice. It is hard enough to get our roads and bridges fixed in the eastern transportation region. We don’t need to be fighting any more than we already do to get the money.”
Minority leader Paul Lundeen, R-Colorado Springs said although the conference committee amended it a bit by removing the reference to population, leaving “equitable” in the amendment is still inappropriate for the needs of transportation for all of Colorado.
“We live by a system of one person, one vote,” Lundeen said. “But the correlation doesn’t fall exactly the same to one cubic foot of concrete or one cubic foot of asphalt per the area where the votes are. We have a broad transportation network across a huge state. It’s part of interstate commerce, and the big trucks that roll across our roadways have an impact on those roadways. And making sure that we acknowledge the distant and far corners of our state are appropriately funded with regard to transportation infrastructure is critically important.”
Priola as deciding vote
After the vote to dissolve the conference committee failed, the vote on the amendment itself was laid over to Monday, as supporters expect Cutter to cast the deciding vote with Democrats to approve the amendment.
However, Weld County representatives jumped into action Friday morning by encouraging residents to call and express their displeasure with Priola and ask him to vote in the direction that would not hurt his constituents.
Weld County Commissioner Scott James, who also represents the county on the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, said House Bill 1101 is yet “another in a seemingly never-ending stream of bills attempting to “do something” regarding ozone and greenhouse gas.
The bill directs taxpayer money to provide free and reduced-fare transit service to “the rare few who can actually access these services in our state,” James said.
James added that Winter was doing the bidding of the of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to stifle rural voices and punish Weld County for being strong advocates for fair and common-sense transportation expenditures.
“Weld County Senator Kevin Priola is shunning his job as our representative and voting with urban legislators,” James said. “Since Senator Priola found himself representing Weld County, he hasn’t actually done so! He is rarely seen north of the Adams County Line. We must remind him that his job is to represent Weld’s citizens and interests.”
Kirkmeyer said all the committee had to do was take out the word “equitable” out of the amendment and she wouldn’t be opposing it.
“This is about trying to lessen the voice of rural Colorado on transportation because the executive director of transportation — who is appointed by the governor — and her staff thought it was a great idea to sneak an amendment into a bill that no one was really aware of until (Sen. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction) came forward and pointed out the issue with it,” Kirkmeyer said. “They are either going to lessen the vote or put in a weighted voting mechanism, which will hurt rural Colorado, which will hurt those small MPOs. I know because I sat on the STAC for 20 years. I chaired it for eight years. Every opportunity they had, the larger MPOs would always try to outvote or outwork with the department the rest of the state transportation advisory committee.”
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