In addition to electing a new governor this November, Colorado voters will also decide the fate of 13 statewide ballot questions, including two specifically aimed at funding transportation projects.
But beyond that shared goal, propositions 109 and 110 differ greatly.
The former, 109, aims to raise funds by shuffling around the state’s budget. The latter, 110, would pay for transportation projects through a statewide sales tax increase.
If passed, 110 would raise the statewide sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent starting January 2019. The new revenue would then be divvied up -- 45 percent to state highways, 20 percent to city transportation projects, 20 percent to county transportation projects and 15 percent to public transportation.
Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, along with a statewide coalition of business owners and elected officials, is behind the measure. The campaign recently dubbed itself “Let’s Go, Colorado.”
“The truth is we need to pay if we’d like to improve our quality of life in terms of our transportation experience in Colorado,” she said. “We have a strategy where you pay very little and you can get huge improvement.”
Once divvied up, local governments would independently determine which projects the funding should go toward, she added.
A disagreement over funding
Jon Caldara is with the Independence Institute, a libertarian think-tank behind Proposition 109. He says the tax increase idea is a gamble.
“We don’t know what we’re getting with this tax increase,” he said. “We don’t know what transit projects. We don’t know what the cities will do with their slush fund. It brings in a lot of money and we’re not certain.”
That certainty is what Caldara is flaunting as 109’s edge. Caldara said the proposal, also known as “Fix Our Damn Roads,” has been done before.
In 1999, then-governor Bill Owens was facing a similar situation. The state was flush with surplus money but none of it was going toward roads.
In response, Owens, a Republican, put forward a bonding question called the Transportation Expansion Project, or TREX. It added extra lanes to I-25 south of Denver and more than 19 miles of light rail track around the city.
“It worked beautifully,” Caldara said.
But, Brough said, the downside to Caldara’s plan is that it’s not clear how the state’s debt would get paid back.
“Most likely, we believe you’d have to take it out of higher ed,” she said. “Our higher ed funding is 48th out of 50th in the country. Out of our K-12 system, where 55 percent of our districts are on four-day school weeks. So they’re probably going to have to go to less. And out of healthcare.”
Both campaigns are critical of each other’s approach to the funding issue. But what would happen if both measures passed?
“It’s a wonderful intellectual question but I don’t see that at all,” Caldara said.
Brough also doesn’t see it working out that way.
“I think what you’d invite is a lot of legal wrangling about what you get to spend your money on in your local community,” she said. “And we think that should be their decision on what’s important.”
Neither Brough nor Caldara said they want to think about the other possibility: neither question passing. They both acknowledged CDOT’s estimated $9 billion project backlog and Colorado’s ballooning population as contributing factors to a declining quality of life in the state.
If both 109 and 110 fail, state lawmakers have a question on deck for the 2019 ballot that would ask voters to bond about $2 billion for transportation projects.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.