Road to more funding looks rough

Guest column, Miller Hudson

Nearly two years of discussions and 18 months of research on transportation funding options crashed to the floor with a thud earlier this month in the Lookout Room at the Taj Mahal, Jefferson County Government Adminstration and Court Facility, in Golden.

MPACT64 was created as a statewide forum where the Metro Mayors Caucus could meet with Club 20, the Progressive 15 and Action 22, representing all 64 counties across Colorado. Following the economic collapse of 2008, state budgets have kept squeezing down on transportation funding. This has reduced available dollars at every level of local government. These reductions have been exacerbated by the diminishing effectiveness of the state gasoline tax as more fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles continue to enter the fleet.

Although highways and transit have been funded primarily with user fees, including the gas tax, for nearly a century, these no longer generate revenues that match the increase in demand for highways and transportation services. Polling has found a widespread hatred of gas tax increases for nearly 20 years despite the fact that the tax has not been increased since 1992. The only alternative that would continue to maintain the historical “user pays” principle would be a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) levy.

Once again, polling finds this option is little more attractive than gas taxes, while being poorly understood and raising privacy concerns. Consequently, MPACT 64 surveyed Colorado voters last year to determine what revenue option would prove the most popular, or least unpopular, with voters.

The answer was a hike in the statewide sales tax. MPACT64, together with contractors and other organizations concerned about the deterioration of state roads, developed a ballot proposition that would impose an additional seven-tenths of a cent sales tax statewide in order to raise $600 million annually in additional revenues. These dollars would be divvied up between state and local governments in accordance with the existing state formula for distributing transportation revenues. After the crushing defeat of the proposed hike in state income taxes to fund K-12 schools this past November, in which question 66 was defeated by a nearly two to one margin, MPACT64 decided to test the appeal of its sales tax proposal.

Maria Garcia Berry and Roger Sherman of CRL Associates delivered the bad news to supporters last week. Some 52-percent of those polled would vote no, while only 42-percent leaned yes. And 80 percent of the no voters are intensely opposed and just half the yes voters are strongly favorable. Support in rural areas, which would be the primary beneficiaries of increased spending, only mustered 35 percent support. The suburbs barely produced 50 percent support, while Denver came in on the statewide average at 42 percent. The consultants, to their considerable credit, advised their clients that they should wait for a more propitious political climate somewhere over the horizon. Only 4 percent of those polled reported transportation funding as a priority. 33 percent placed jobs and the economy at the top of the list. And, a surprising 46 percent suggested additional government efficiency is needed — suggesting belt-tightening as a source of revenues.

While it is apparent this is not a good time to attempt to raise taxes, there were few clues as to the virulence of voter resistance. The MPACT64 pollsters speculated that the state’s much touted economic turnaround may only be reaching a sliver of residents, while the vast majority of Colorado taxpayers continue to struggle with reduced incomes and pinched personal budgets. Others speculated that only a comprehensive proposal similar to Referendum C approved in 2005, which included assistance to schools, roads, higher education and human services held the potential for creating a winning coalition.

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