At Last Minute, Colorado Lawmakers Strike A Deal For Transportation, Schools

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4min 18sec

Originally published on May 11, 2017 9:00 am

Colorado lawmakers waited until Wednesday, the final day of their annual session, to vote on what many people felt was their most significant bill: one addressing transportation. Democratic and Republican leaders wanted a deal. So did Gov. John Hickenlooper. And it took lawmakers until the last minute to hammer out a deal on transportation.

Nobody seemed to get everything they wanted, but Senate Bill 267 passed the house with a vote of 49 to 16 vote and is on its way to Hickenlooper for a signature. It adds about $2 billion for roads, but those who hoped to see  money go to mayors to address local problems, or to transit, were disappointed.

“Every session always has a different kind of tenor or flavor to it,” said Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, a Democrat and member of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee. “This one we’ve tackled some really big topics. It’s actually, in many regards, less contentious because when [transportation] actually passes that’s a sign that people are coming together to compromise on things.”

There was more than road money in the bill. The bill also removed a fee hospitals pay from counting as state income. It was a technicality that freed up more money in the budget for roads as well as some for schools. The bill also allows the sale of some state buildings to lease back.

There was so much in the bill, that some lawmakers felt qualms. The bill was an especially tough vote for Republicans, including Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain.

“It’s not OK that by the time I walk out of here I know I will have earned myself a primary,” she said of an anticipated backlash from her own party.

That was a sentiment echoed by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.

Conservative groups argue the bill undermined the Tax Payer’s Bill of Rights or TABOR and that it will increase government spending.

Without it, Sonnenberg said, some rural hospitals in his district could have closed.

“I’m already getting beat up on social media, but the truth is I get beat up on a lot of things,” he said. “For me it’s the right thing to do for rural Colorado.”

The Transportation Backstory

The transportation fix all came together after a big fight over transportation that saw a bill sponsored by leaders of both parties fail. That bill sought to ask voters if they would support a tax increase to fix roads, bridges and improve transit.

Credit Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage
Democratic Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs said she was disappointed lawmakers failed to send a ballot question to voters to increase sales taxes for transportation.

“It really seemed that the anti-tax ideology carried the day,” said Democratic Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, one of the main sponsors of that failed effort. “Even though the vast majority of business groups all over the state, community groups, local governments were all for the bill. So things like that are frustrating.”

What had made this year’s effort on transportation unique was high-profile Republican support. It is unusual for the top Republican to back a tax increase. Despite its defeat, Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City said he’s still glad he sponsored the bill and worked on it with the Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran.

“We have a diverse caucus and I think the results of the session reflect that,” he said. “This was possibly I thought at the time the best chance for people to decide how they wanted to fund transportation.” 

Even though his party has a one-seat majority in the Senate, Grantham did not use his power to make sure the bill got to the floor for a full vote where it would have passed.

“Process is important and the president is not above the process,” he said.

Because of their narrow majority it was a tough year for swing votes like Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose.

“I think it has been a little more contentious than most of the years,” Coram said. “When you’re an 18-17 body [the state Senate], everything is contentious because there’s always someone working on you for their angle.”

Coram joined with Democrats to pass many of their key budget amendments like funding a survey that tracks youth drug use, suicide and sexual activity. He backed another of the governor’s top priorities: using $15 million from marijuana taxes for transitional housing and other services for the chronically homeless and those coming out of prison. He also got LGBTQ protections through and tried to raise fees for state parks.

“There’s been a few occasions I’ve been the lone voice on something that I think was good for my district,” said Coram. “There’s been a lot of pressure but I do what I think is best for my district and I don’t really care what the Republicans or Democrats think about it.”

A Few Side Notes On Bills

In addition to big budgetary issues, lawmakers passed a bill to try to spur condo development by making it harder to sue for construction defects. A measure to modernize public open records laws in the digital age cleared, so did a proposal to pave the way for driverless vehicles in Colorado.

In the wake of a fatal house explosion linked to old gas lines in Firestone, Colo., there was a bill to map flow lines, but it failed. So did a bill to set up parameters for pot clubs.

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