Time running out on Colorado's $5 billion transportation bill

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DALLAS – With two weeks remaining in its 2018 session, the Colorado Legislature is facing teacher protests while awaiting action on a bill that would provide $5 billion for transportation projects and another that would bolster the state’s weakening pension fund.

The transportation measure, Senate Bill 1, is awaiting action in the House after passing the Senate on March 28 on a unanimous vote. Sponsor Randy Baumgardner, R-Granby, has seen two previous efforts to pass transportation bonds fail in the last days of the sessions.

SB1 would set aside $250 million annually for transportation over 20 years. If voters approve bonds, the state funding would cover the $5 billion needed to repay the proposed borrowing costs. If voters reject the measure, the money would be transferred to the state highway fund for road maintenance. In a compromise, Democrats and Republicans agreed to delay sending voters a referendum to issue the bonds until 2019. Republicans see that as providing business groups an opportunity to go to the ballot for a potential tax hike this November.

A related House Bill 1340 by Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, would authorize a transfer of $495 million to the State Highway Fund if SB1 fails to pass. The House bill is in the Senate, awaiting a decision on whether to accept House amendments as well as waiting for resolution on SB1.

SB1 requires the state treasurer to transfer $500 million from the general fund to the state highway fund on June 30, 2019 and to transfer $250 million from the general fund to the state highway fund annually on June 30 of state fiscal years 2019-20 though 2038-39.

The bill also repeals the requirement that the state enter into $500 million of lease-purchase agreements in fiscal years 2019 through 2022 if voters approve the issuance of tax and revenue anticipation notes.

One section of the bill limits the authority of the Colorado Department of Transportation to enter into a public-private partnership to build toll lanes on any state highway. The $500 million transfer from the general fund can only be used for new highway projects.

Another finance measure awaiting action in the House is Senate Bill 200, which is designed to reduce the underfunded pension for the Public Employees Retirement Association. After winning approval in the House Finance and House Appropriations committees, the bill and awaiting debate in the full House.

The finance committee changed the retirement age to a minimum of 60 years old. The cost of living adjustment was also reduced to 1.25%. The committee also stripped a 2% increase to employer contributions.

“This goes against the guiding principle of shared sacrifice of employee and employer,” said Kerrie Dallman, a high school social studies teacher and president of the Colorado Education Association. “With the growing educator shortage, we simply cannot afford to shortchange future educators by including a defined-contribution plan. The current bill hurts those who are underpaid already.”

Thousands of Colorado teachers walked out on their jobs Thursday, converging on the Capitol in Denver to protest low pay and school funding. The Colorado protest coincided with a teacher walkout in Arizona. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia have also walked out in previous protests.

While Colorado enjoys an economic boom, the Colorado Education Association says the state has underfunded schools by $6.6 billion since 2009.

With so little time left in the current session, any measure to improve school funding is unlikely to enter the growing logjam of bills awaiting hearings. But voters could lend a hand by approving a measure to increase school funding in November.

Initiative 86 would increase income taxes on higher-income brackets to create a Quality Public Education Fund. If approved, the new tax revenue would be required to supplement the General Fund for K-12 public education as of its effective date or beginning in fiscal 2020. The amount would be adjusted for yearly inflation of up to five percent and be exempt from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights revenue limit.

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