Roads shortchanged in state budget

In Capitol Review, Notes by Mark Hillman

In the 18 months since voters passed Referendum C, Colorado’s resurgent economy has boosted the state’s budget windfall by 50 percent, from the $3.7 billion estimated just prior to Election Day 2005 to the most recent estimate of $5.4 billion.

Yet one thing that Ref C’s supporters and detractors seemed to agree upon is the silver lining that current law directs most of that additional revenue to transportation.  After all, state transportation spending fell from $1.39 billion in 2001 to $822 million in 2005, due to economic woes and the expiration of a highway bond program that voters approved in 1999.

Another not-so-obvious factor — political pandering — made the transportation predicament worse during the recession and now seems to be eating away at transportation even as those coffers could be refilled.  For legislators, the political reality is that roads and bridges don’t vote, but senior citizens do – and so do college students and their parents, as well as recipients of Medicaid.

That may seem peculiar in a state in which so many of us prize our mobility, logging millions of highway miles traveling to work during the week and to play on weekends.  But those political realities are nothing new.

Highway spending also withered in the 1990s when the unstated strategy seemed to be "pay for everything else from the general fund, then ask voters to authorize a tax increase to pay for highways."

Voters regularly rejected such tax increases, and it wasn’t until Governor Owens’ 1999 bonding proposal that transportation finally received a much-needed shot in the arm.

When Ref C passed, transportation stood to gain $445 million over five years – notwithstanding the failure of Referendum D, a companion measure to authorize additional highway bonds.

As the economy continued to surge, the windfall for transportation grew to more than $1.7 billion by last December.  That’s because once the state’s general fund has grown by six percent, much of the overflow goes to transportation.

An extra $1.7 billion over five years would boost the transportation budget by 40 percent.  Just such an infusion is particularly timely given that fuel tax revenues — the primary source of highway dollars — have been relatively stagnant in recent years due to rising fuel costs and more fuel-efficient vehicles, both of which suppress consumption.

Unfortunately when the legislature convened in January, transportation began to die the death of a thousand cuts.

Where legislators once labored to funnel money into the general fund to prop up future spending limits, they now creatively siphoned money away from the general fund – leaving less to spill over into transportation.

Right out of the chute, top Democrats passed Senate Bill 97, sponsored by Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, which diverted a portion of the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement receipts away from the general fund.  All by itself, SB 97 reduced future highway spending by $101 million over five years.

Just last week, SB 222 by Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, raided highway spending to the tune of $30 million to build more state buildings, rather than take care of existing highways.

Add up these and dozens of others and the legislature is poised to slash $350-$400 million from transportation over the next five years.  That doesn’t even include a bill to double the state’s budget reserve, which would carve transportation by another $300 million.

All of these costly shenanigans put Governor Ritter’s Blue Ribbon Transportation Panel in a prickly predicament.  The BRTP’s task is to devise a "fresh, balanced approach" to building highways and maintaining roads that the Governor himself describes as "deteriorating."

A truly fresh and balanced approach would begin by telling legislators to stop squandering the money already at their disposal.  Unless that happens, convincing taxpayers to dig deeper into their own pockets will be a mighty tough sell.

Mark Hillman served as Colorado Senate Majority Leader.  To read more or comment, visit www.markhillman.com.