What Now for Transportation Funding?

Nov 13, 2018 | Economy, Elections

Last Tuesday voters in Colorado said ‘no’ to both ballot measures to fund transportation. Both Proposition 109 (Fix Our Damn Roads, a $3.5B bonding program, no tax increase) and Proposition 110 (Let’s Go, Colorado, a 0.62% state sales tax increase with a bonding component) failed with 40% in favor, 60% opposed.

What does it all mean and what’s next?

Starting on a positive note, two different groups of Coloradoans petitioned transportation funding measures onto the state ballot. Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute got Fix Our Damn Roads on the ballot and the Denver Metro Chamber led the effort for Let’s Go, Colorado. This is a tedious, political, time-consuming and expensive process. Hats off to both for their efforts.

Less positive, they shouldn’t have had to do this. The Governor and the Colorado Legislature have failed to provide funds for the state’s transportation system, especially its highways. If they really believed more funding was needed, they needed to negotiate a solution and refer it to the ballot. Voters still may not have supported their solution, but the chances go up of something passing if it has gone through the political give-and-take necessary to pass bipartisan legislation.

And keep in mind, passing a tax measure in Colorado in the TABOR era is a difficult task. Since the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was passed in 1992 no state tax increases have passed expect “sin taxes” on tobacco and marijuana.

That makes it politically convenient to blame the voters but it doesn’t solve the problem.

So, why did the two measures fail? In my opinion, here are the main reasons:

  • Two measures were confusing. While the two measures reflect the divide in Colorado between ‘tax more’ and ‘government has enough money’ they didn’t provide THE solution to the problem of growing congestion.
  • Continuing the point above, neither measure got it right. This is a point of frustration for me and our organization. The Fix Our Damn Roads proposal was right to a point about there being money available in the state budget for transportation, but by itself, it isn’t enough. The Let’s Go, Colorado proposal larded up transit and tried to buy support from cities, towns, and counties by providing a generous shareback. The result was not enough money going to state highways. And, the proposed sales tax rate was too high. In the end, after years of advocating for transportation funding, we couldn’t oppose them, so we supported both while quietly wishing for something better.
  • It was unclear what would get built. Both measures could cite projects that would benefit from more funding but missing was a messaging campaign declaring exactly what would get done. These projects WILL get done – boom, boom, boom and boom – guan-damn-teed. Without that, it was a no go.
  • Local trumped state. A lot was being asked of voters. Even the most ardent big government love taxes acolyte would pause before supporting all of the state and local tax measures on the ballot. Support a local tax measure for schools or Amendment 73 (the huge state income tax increase for education)? Support the 0.62% sales tax for state transportation or a local tax for mental health services? For those inclined to support something, local would usually win out.

What’s next? The day after the election we started to work through our options and have more meetings this week to discuss strategy. Connecting with the new administration of Governor-elect Polis is a priority. Legislatively, there is over a billion dollars of new (read ‘unattached’) revenue, some which can go toward transportation. Polling or focus groups to find out why voters voted as they did may be in order. Then there are local options that need to be dusted off and considered like a regional transportation authority.

Both Props 109 and 110 were long shots and the outcome is disappointing but not completely surprising. Our job is to continue to work the problem until we get North I-25 widened.