EDITORIAL: Hickenlooper is right; call Colorado legislators back into session to solve state transportation crisis

It’s time for state lawmakers to focus on the state’s serious transportation crisis, without the distractions of other legislative noise and under intense scrutiny and pressure from voters

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s instinct is right; call state lawmakers back for a special session to address Colorado’s looming transportation calamity.

The Colorado Legislature adjourned for the year Wednesday after a productive session of addressing myriad state issues. Remarkably, lawmakers were able to come to agreement on heavy-hitting issues despite a politically polarized Capitol that has Republicans running the Senate with a one-seat majority and Democrats controlling the House with only a slightly heftier lead. For the past few years, the most important issues have gone unsolved because of stubbornness on both sides to move toward true common ground.

The biggest obstacles have been Democrats’ refusal to diminish Colorado’s growing Medicaid program and Republicans’ refusal to release the hospital provider fee money set aside by the state to address the ballooning costs associated with the Medicaid expansion. The argument has held hundreds of millions of state dollars hostage and cheated residents out of desperately needed money for roads, schools, public safety, higher education and other programs.

This year, Republicans were cornered by their own hospital-provider-fee extortion plot. Outstate hospitals depending on Medicaid money attached to those hospital provider fees are about to fail and close, creating a serious health crisis in rural parts of the state. And almost all of those failing rural health centers are in areas represented by Republicans. These GOP state House and Senate members were forced to first blink and then back off their provider-fee obstinacy. They needed a deal to prevent the Medicaid war from actually harming their constituents. It’s a quagmire that would bring almost certain political annihilation for some heavy-hitting Republicans who once led the fight against acquiescing on the hospital provider fee.

A handful of other conservative Republicans squelched the bi-partisan deal a few weeks ago, forcing lawmakers to create a hodgepodge bill at the last minute that temporarily solved the most critical part of rural hospital funding.  But the bill produces an underwhelming $1.1 billion over 20 years for Colorado transportation needs. Sure, it’s at least something, but the state needs $9 billion in road expansion and repair projects, just to bring Colorado to where it needs to be in 2018.

Too much is at stake to allow pithy partisan politics to hold up progress across the state. There are now dueling state initiatives brewing, some of which are extremely dangerous to Colorado. One, supported by the Independence Institute, a Golden based libertarian activist group, would force the state to dedicate billions of dollars to pay for transportation projects without raising taxes — at the expense of public schools, colleges and other programs. Other potential initiatives would raise sales taxes, and they would almost certainly garner widespread opposition, pitting the two parties against each other.

It’s time for state lawmakers to focus on the state’s serious transportation crisis, without the distractions of other legislative noise and under intense scrutiny and pressure from voters.

Bring lawmakers together and Colorado media will ensure everyone knows what the proposals are, and which lawmakers refuse to budge so that we can fill potholes, stripe lanes, repair bridges and implement traffic solutions to problems that are choking traffic across the state.

The safety and economic health of Colorado are at stake here. Solutions need to do more than just raise sales taxes. Transit companies, over-the-road haulers, tourists and other businesses must also pay to maintain and improve roads they use to make a profit.

Legislators have tentatively agreed to take a long look over the next two years at the state’s complicated and adversarial budget problems, but Colorado can’t wait. There are workable, palatable solutions that can solve the bulk of the state’s immediate transportation problems, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle need to set aside their intransigence to find them — or face voter consequences. Call a special session.