This is where the reality hits the road, Colorado.
We must raise taxes to fix the state’s failing and overwhelmed transportation infrastructure or suffer in ways we haven’t even imagined.
Sound dire? It is. Actually, the lack of lanes, crumbling bridges and dilapidated roads were dire about 10 years ago across the state, and especially in Colorado’s largest, overused metro areas. The condition of roads and highways and shortage of lanes is now critical.
We are out of money. We are out of time. And the majority of Colorado taxpayers are out of patience.
So what’s the problem? Legislators have refused to consider raising taxes despite the clear, overwhelming and unrelenting evidence that the state simply does not have enough money to provide all the services we demand.
This is not a state whose residents live in the lap of governmental luxury. Public schools here are among the least funded in the nation. Higher education, too, ranks low across the nation as a recipient for state tax dollars. Social services? Absolutely not. Colorado is and always has been a frugal state.
But now we’ve gone too far. By underfunding transportation needs, the problem has mushroomed with a growing list of postponed repairs and shelved expansion projects. Meanwhile, Colorado’s population has nearly tripled, to about 6 million people, since the state’s highway system was created in 1960.
Despite what chronic naysayers maintain, there is no fat in the Colorado budget. Sure, there are ways to squeeze more transportation dollars out of the pot of public funds, but every dollar must come at the expense of something else. What do we give up for another lane between Denver and Fort Collins? Close schools or demand teachers take pay cuts? Quit testing for plague and bird flu? Reduce the ranks of the state patrol? Close state prisons and let the inmates out?
A small-but-vocal herd of tax-protesters and naive outsiders contend that it can be done. They say there’s money to shave magically and painlessly from the budget that can buy asphalt by summer’s end. Many Republicans propose that Colorado cut deep into its expanded Medicaid budget and use money set aside for health care for the poorest of the poor to pave roads. It’s a ruse. Yes, Colorado lawmakers can divert the state’s contribution to Medicaid to other programs, but then we lose matching cash from the federal government set up under Obamacare. If we end Medicaid for tens of thousands of Colorado residents across the state, we almost immediately must close a handful of critical outstate hospitals that depend on those dollars. And those now-uninsured people flood metro hospitals for free care. And then there’s the Hospital Provider Fee imposed on hospitals, which actually offsets the state’s contribution for expanded Medicaid. Hospitals certainly aren’t going to pay that and indigent care.
No doubt that health care and Colorado’s budget oddities have created a teetering Jenga game of constitutional amendments and entitlements. Until lawmakers and voters are ready to deal with them all at the same time, however, this is the reality welded into our state government and playing out on Colorado roads. Naysayers are dead wrong, and by offering residents this false hope, they make the situation worse and harder to solve.
House Bill 1242 passed the state House on a 41-24 vote, collecting four Republican backers. It now heads to the Senate, where it appears it will pass, unless it’s loaded with poison amendments. The bill would ask voters to raise the state sales tax less than one penny on a dollar, moving the total state sales tax from about 3 cents on a dollar to about 3.5 cents on a dollar. It would raise about $375 million a year and allow Colorado to get about $3.5 billion in new and better roads — which is less than half of what’s actually badly needed. The measure would also help fund other transportation projects such as transit and even bike lanes.
It’s not perfect. It lacks a way to assess commercial trucks and transport a fairer share of the costs. It depends on sales taxes, which is less than ideal. But there is no better answer acceptable to everyone. If by some miracle the Congress and White House find a way out of the nation’s health-care quagmire, any available Medicaid money could actually be refunded to taxpayers. Or it can easily be used by underfunded schools and other programs, or even for more transportation needs.
Approve and send this measure to voters this fall. Let the merits of the proposal speak for themselves to those of us who must suffer commutes that cost time, money and even lives. Colorado has come to the end of the road pretending that an easy solution to our transportation dilemma is just one more election away. It’s not. Approve House Bill 1242 and let voters decide what to do next.