By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Contractors are concerned over a budget-balancing measure making its way through the Legislature that would divert as much as $20 million annually away from state-funded bridge and highway projects.
House Bill 1387, which has already made its way through the House and is currently being debated by the Senate, would divert approximately $20 million away from the Highway User Tax Fund — which pays for bridge and highway repairs — to the Department of Revenue for driver’s license administration.
The measure, which has bipartisan support, aims at assisting in closing the state’s estimated $1.3 billion shortfall. The bill is part of the proposed $18.2 billion budget, which was taken up by the Senate Thursday after making its way through the House.
Contractors wonder why the Democratic-controlled Legislature pushed a bill through the Legislature last year that increased vehicle registration fees in order to raise $250 million annually for transportation funding, only to then propose diverting $20 million annually away from bridge and highway projects. The state has 126 structurally deficient bridges and hundreds of miles of crumbling highways to fix.
“How do the governor and those who voted for FASTER honestly tell their constituents that the number of structurally deficient bridges and poor highways required a vehicle registration fees increase last year, but then turn around this year and divert tens of millions away from those same structurally deficient bridges and high-priority highway projects?” asked Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association. “Do legislators really believe the public and media will endorse diverting $20 million per year — $200 million over the next decade — away from road and bridge projects after they just approved FASTER?”
Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, is sponsoring HB 1387 in the Senate. He said he is open to discussing amendments that would sunset the diversion, rather than make it permanent.
But the issue for White is about budget-balancing and paying for services with fees that are intended for those services. He pointed out that about $17.3 million is placed in the Highway User Tax Fund each year from revenue generated through processing driver’s licenses.
“Somewhere along the line … there became some consideration of entitlement that the purpose of those funds were for highway construction — I think it’s just historical disconnect somewhere because it seems to me that if I need a driver’s license this year and you don’t, that I should pay the fee to support that process instead of taking money out of the general fund, which are your taxes,” said White. “Why should your taxes go to support my processing of a driver’s license if you don’t need one and I do?”
White and his supporters, including Joint Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, are aiming at uniformity in paying for licensing.
“We’re trying to move toward having fees cover the cost of any program — whether it’s agricultural inspection, whether it’s restaurant inspection, whether it’s licensure of Realtors — the fee that the person who is being licensed pays should cover the entire cost of operating that program,” he said.
But Milo says the diversion couldn’t come at a worse time for his industry. He points out that business is down anywhere from 30-40 percent for the construction industry.
State-funded Colorado Department of Transportation projects usually boost the industry by anywhere between $400 million to $600 million, according to Milo. But a diversion of $20 million would take a large chunk out of the boost, he said.
The first FASTER projects are in the works, but construction is only just beginning on a handful of them. Only two projects are under contract, according to a CDOT FASTER Web site.
“The industry, legislators and the governor had to work very hard to get FASTER through — because there’s a dire need,” said Milo. “So, to take a step forward and then what feels like a little bit of a step back with this diversion is frustrating, because we do have so many needs here in Colorado for transportation.”