Colorado’s roads suck. I agree. My family and I drive them every day. We need to spend more on our ailing road system. For too long, politicians have failed to prioritize our transportation needs and, as a result, the roads, bridges, and highways throughout Colorado are in desperate need of repair.
Unfortunately, the so-called “deal” recently struck by state legislative leaders to address transportation is not a real solution at all. The plan, HB 1242, asks taxpayers to foot a $702 million annual tax hike by increasing the states sales tax by 21 percent for the next 20 years. Those who attempt to justify such a large increase by arguing that Colorado’s 2.9 percent sales tax rate is one of the lowest in the country are engaging in typical political speak. Colorado ranks third highest in the U.S. for average local tax rates. Once all of those local government sales taxes are layered in, Colorado families pay much closer to 7.5 percent in sales tax each day. That places Colorado’s combined tax rate well into the top one-third of all states in our country.
Likewise, our state budget has been on steroids the past few years. Despite the protections of TABOR and accompanying “the sky is falling!” attitude from those who want larger government, Colorado’s budget has grown by 40 percent in the past five years. That is more than four times the growth rate of our population, more than four times the growth in wages, and twice the growth rate in vehicle miles driven.
We are weary of the failed arguments that Coloradans are under-taxed and our state government is under-funded.
Colorado voters have been asked twice in the past few years to increase income taxes to boost state spending. Not surprisingly, both measures, Proposition 103 and Amendment 66, were overwhelmingly rejected by 2-to-1 margins. The early polling on this latest sales tax hike scheme shows a similar level of opposition. Voters will likely send politicians back to the drawing board yet again.
There are alternatives to this doomed plan. Our elected leaders should take a different approach and address this legitimate and pressing problem with a real solution. The naysayers and reflexive tax-hikers dismissively suggest it cannot be done. I disagree.
First, remember that in 1999, new Gov. Bill Owens not only tackled transportation needs, he did it while cutting taxes. Colorado families got better roads and kept more of their hard earned money. In part, Owens accomplished this by bonding a portion of the federal gas tax revenue the state gets back from Washington, D.C. each year. This plan was wildly popular and successful. Those TRANS bonds, as they are known, are set to expire this year. We should renew them.
As well, we should also look for additional existing revenue to bond to address all of our state’s major transportation projects, not just on the front range, but also on the plains and Western Slope. One option may be to bond a larger percentage of the federal gas tax. We should also look at current revenues that are supposed to go to transportation, but are currently prohibited from going towards bonding. Another place to look for existing revenue is our tax giveaways. For example, we could stop giving tax credits to rich Hollywood production companies, or we could eliminate government handouts to wealthy people who purchase electric cars. People should buy electric cars, if they want to. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize those purchases. Another part of any plan to tackle our roads is to dedicate a portion of Colorado’s general fund revenue to transportation.
These are just some of the possible ways to fund our roads that do not call for hiking our regressive sales tax for the next 20 years to the tune of more than $14 billion. We have the means to address this challenge without going hat in hand to taxpayers.
If we are serious about addressing our transportation needs, and there are many, Colorado needs leaders with the guts to prioritize our massive state budget and to make the tough decisions they were elected to make. Doing so not only would fix our broken roads, but would also go a long way toward repairing the crumbling trust voters currently have in government.
George Brauchler is district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, encompassing Arapahoe County.