Colorado voters will see another transportation ballot question soon — unless Polis and the legislature shift the debate

After Colorado voters handily rejected two transportation-funding ballot measures in Tuesday’s election, the next step is already clear: Another vote is set a year from now.

But it’s anybody’s guess whether that preemptive ballot question, teed up by state legislators as a backup in case the two outside groups’ initiatives failed, will actually go forward in November 2019.

The carefully laid plan for a $2.3 billion bonding question just might be upended by the broader outcome of the election.

When Democrats lead both chambers of the state legislature and occupy the governor’s office in January, they will gain the upper hand over Republicans, who had used their Senate majority to force compromises in spending debates.

“The legislature could certainly change their mind and go in a different direction,” said Sam Mamet, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, which  backed a sales tax increase rejected by voters.

Democratic legislators say they likely will revisit transportation. But it’s too early to say what they might propose.

“Coloradans are not happy about the time we spend in traffic,” said Rep. KC Becker, who will preside as speaker in the House. “We’ve gotten behind on maintenance. I think transportation is going to continue to be a discussion. … It’s obviously important, but it’s going to be challenging.”

CDOT’s $9 billion backlog — and other needs

The longstanding challenge faced by state leaders has been how to reduce, or even eliminate, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s estimated $9 billion gap for deferred maintenance and new projects. On top of that, local governments and transit advocates have had their hands out, too.

Republicans in the legislature have insisted on shifting spending priorities and belt-tightening, while Democrats have been more open to asking voters to approve new taxes or other sources of revenue. Republicans, by and large, have insisted on addressing highway needs first, while some Democrats also want to chip in for multimodal projects, including public transit and bike trails.

Morning rush hour traffic makes its ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Morning rush hour traffic makes its way along 6th Avenue and Federal Blvd. on Oct. 12, 2017 in Denver.

Legislative compromises in 2017 and 2018 set in motion state borrowing plans and one-time cash infusions, drawn from growing state revenue, that will raise $2.5 billion for transportation projects of varying kinds.

Next year’s default ballot question, if approved by voters, would raise $2.3 billion, but that would supplant some of the other borrowing plans. The net increase for transportation projects would be about $840 million.

But the political calculus on a host of issues changes in January, when Democrats take over the Senate and expand their majority in the House. Gov.-elect Jared Polis also will succeed John Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat.

During gubernatorial debates with Republican nominee Walker Stapleton, Polis avoided specifics when asked about transportation funding.

He didn’t take a position on Proposition 110, which proposed a 0.62 percent sales tax increase, in part citing a concern that sales taxes are regressive. The tax would have raised $767 million in the first year — and more than $20 billion over two decades — for a mix of state, local and multimodal projects.

Polis did oppose Proposition 109, a $3.5 billion borrowing measure that would have been strictly for highway projects. It would have required the state to dip into its general fund for bond payments, a feature Polis said was cause for worry.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

DENVER, CO – OCTOBER 12: Morning rush hour traffic makes its way along 6th Avenue and Federal Blvd. on October 12, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Voters rejected both measures by roughly 20 percentage points, with 109 going down in every single county and 110 winning majority support in only five, including Denver.

“A question of what the voters want to do”

Polis says he will seek input from a variety of political leaders and interest groups as he and the legislature figure out a broader plan for transportation funding.

“It’s a question of what the voters want to do,” Polis told The Denver Post in a post-election interview. “I (heard) a lot across the campaign trail, from Republicans and Democrats and the business community, that they want to invest in our roads and our bridges and our infrastructure, and we’re going to be doing a lot of listening to see how people want to pay for it.”

He hasn’t ruled out seeking voter approval for another kind of tax increase.

Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, says the new session offers a chance to address “billions more in projects across our state,” and legislators are “up to the challenge.”

Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican who worked on this year’s legislative compromise, expected Democrats to make a move.

“On the other hand, why would they mess with it?” Cooke said. “Because it’s the first time the legislature has done anything on transportation in years.”

If Democrats take a bigger swing, plenty of interests and advocates will be cheering them on.

“From a broad standpoint of municipal leaders across the state,” said Mamet, from the municipal league, “we’re going to be open to any kind of conversations around transportation and infrastructure funding next session. … We still have this big issue in the state that faces us.”


Staff writer Nic Garcia contributed to this story.

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