Hickenlooper: Time is now for Colorado roads spending

"We are, because of this bickering back and forth, falling further behind in maintaining the basic infrastructure that allows us to grow," he said.

DENVER | Gov. John Hickenlooper told Colorado municipal leaders Thursday that time has run out on partisan debate over how to fix the state’s roads and that lawmakers must consider all options for a ballot measure to be referred to voters this year.

Hickenlooper told a Colorado Municipal League summit that he’d like to see concrete proposals in the Legislature by the end of March. That would give lawmakers roughly six weeks to work out a ballot measure before the legislative session ends.

Hickenlooper called for an all-of-the-above package: Issuing bonds for large projects, a possible hike in the 2.9 percent state sales tax, and expanding the general fund by diverting savings in health care spending and adding $750 million in hospital payments.

Colorado spends roughly $150 million in state dollars on roads. But there’s a $9 billion backlog — plus a $1 billion maintenance bill each year. Doing nothing risks the state’s economic growth rate, one of the top in the country, Hickenlooper warned.

“We are, because of this bickering back and forth, falling further behind in maintaining the basic infrastructure that allows us to grow,” he said.

Transportation funding was declared a top priority in 2017 by lawmakers of both parties in Colorado’s split legislature. Democrats traditionally have balked at Republican proposals to issue bonds for roads, saying there’s no revenue to back bonds. Republicans who oppose growth in government spending traditionally have blocked Democratic proposals to add $750 million from a hospital-funded account to the state’s general fund as a way to spend more on roads.

The Democratic governor cited neighboring Utah, a GOP-dominant state that’s competing for jobs with just over half of Colorado’s population. There, Hickenlooper said, lawmakers don’t consider infrastructure spending a partisan issue; among other measures, Utah raised its state gasoline tax and indexed it to inflation to raise roads funding.

Colorado hasn’t touched its state gasoline tax of 22 cents a gallon since 1993.

“I don’t think we can win that competition if we don’t make changes,” Hickenlooper said. “You guys have tremendous leverage with the General Assembly — talk to the Republicans, talk to the Democrats.”

Sam Mamet, executive director of the municipal league, said his organization isn’t taking a stand on a state sales tax hike but noted revenues from the tax are critical to state towns and cities.

The governor also:

—Said his administration hopes to keep Medicaid spending flat this year and use the savings for infrastructure, including getting high-speed internet to more rural communities.

—Told league members he thinks long-delayed reforms on construction liability will be resolved this session as a way to spur housing construction.