Colorado Ballot Measures Could Have Huge Negative Impact for Transportation

“Armageddon on Colorado ballots” proclaimed the colorful headline of a Denver Post editorial this week. The doomsday concern is in reference to three ballot measures Colorado voters will consider this November that may be reflective of the anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-borrowing, anti-big government sentiments among the electorate this fall but that could go a long way in determining whether the state has any money in the future to do important things like build and maintain roads.

Among the measures:

  • Proposition 101 would cut annual vehicle registration fees to a flat $10 and make them no longer based on vehicle size or weight. By cutting the fees back to 1919 levels—before there were even many paved roads in the state—the measure would significantly erode a major revenue stream used to build and maintain Colorado’s roads. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates it would eliminate a quarter of its annual revenue. Hundreds of millions of dollars for state highway projects and local road projects would be cut and more potholes and crumbling bridges would be the result, opponents of the measure say.
  • Amendment 60 would cut property and income taxes so significantly that the state would have almost no general fund money left beyond what’s needed to fund K-12 schools. Combined with Proposition 101, the amendment would mean 92 percent of the general fund would eventually have to go to schools. Only about $38 million would be left over to be divided among colleges, health care, public safety, prisons and agriculture. The size of the general fund is currently around $7 billion.
  • Amendment 61 would prohibit Colorado state government from borrowing money and restrict local governments’ ability to borrow money. Local districts would have to repay bonds within 10 years, which could raise repayment costs for large projects to exorbitant levels. The net effect, opponents of the measure say, is that it would eliminate Colorado’s ability to build or expand any of its capital infrastructure including schools, roads, hospitals, light rail, water and sewer systems. Such a scenario would repel investment and jobs, collapse the economy and rob the state of any chance of economic recovery, they contend.

Fortunately for opponents, an August poll by a Denver-based pollster showed only Proposition 101 to have anywhere close to 50 percent support, though large numbers were undecided. Pollster Floyd Ciruli wrote in a blog post last week that: “The campaign opposing the initiatives appears to be working, along with the facts that they’ve found little support, even among traditionally conservative elected officials; their known supporters have been largely invisible and lack credibility; and the voters themselves have recognized—after enduring some hard-fought primary campaigns—that some things do go too far.”

Indeed the chorus of voices against the three measures includes many Colorado Republican legislators. State Senator and former “Tea Party” gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry told the Los Angeles Times this week: “Tax-cutting conservatives have an obligation to call this what it is, so it doesn’t give us a bad name. It’s an over-reach.” Twenty-eight of the 41 Republicans in the Legislature have signed a letter opposing the initiatives, the Times reported. The Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes supports just one of the measures while Tom Tancredo, the conservative former Congressman who is running as an independent, has backed away from his initial support. Colorado’s conservative attorney general, John Suthers, has said the measures would result in “pure anarchy.”

Many in the business community are opposing one or more of the initiatives as well. About Amendment 61, Dan Pilcher, spokesman for the Colorado Association of Commerce told the Denver Post last week: “It’s hard to think of a worse dent being put in our business climate in terms of being able to recruit companies and keep ones here.”

Still, proponents of the three initiatives could find support from angry voters on November 2nd.

“When we look back (on this Election Day), we’ll continue to see a wave of backlash against big government spending at the federal and state levels,” Joshua Culling of Americans for Tax Reform told Stateline this week in an article looking at ballot measures across the country. “People are that ticked off.”

“Borrowing money to give it away does not make sense,” said Natalie Menten, campaign coordinator for CO Tax Reforms, a group that supports all three of the Colorado measures. “Our approach is to lower taxes and restore the economy by creating jobs.”

But an adequate transportation system also allows states to keep jobs and create new economic development opportunities. And a lack of available revenues makes preserving and improving that system difficult. While no one likes to pay taxes and fees, Colorado voters will need to decide if some things are worth paying for.

According to an April U.S. Public Interest Research Group report, as of 2008, 59 percent of roads in Colorado were in less than good condition. Coloradans who don’t want to see that number increase might want to carefully consider the potential impact of these three ballot measures as they go to the polls. And state transportation officials around the country will want to carefully watch what happens in the Centennial State to see if the sentiments that spawned those measures could spread around the country. Those who seek an improved national transportation system for the 21st century might be wise to hope that they don’t.

As the fiscally conservative former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said recently: “(T)here is a difference between demanding greater fiscal responsibility from our elected officials and literally setting back our state’s progress by decades.”