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Legislative Priorities Unraveling at Colorado Capitol

Tempers are flaring in the final weeks of Colorado’s legislative session and some of the top priorities for lawmakers are in serious jeopardy of failing.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, brought reporters into his office for a hastily called news conference Thursday, April 20, to explain why his bipartisan bill that would ask voters for billions of dollars for transportation projects could soon be dead on arrival.

“No matter how you slice it this comes down to a sales tax increase,” he said. “I’m not sure how many ornaments we can hang on this tree that will make that not as important as it is.”

Even with the backing of Grantham and transportation committee chair Sen. Randy Baumgartner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, House Bill 1242 faced an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate. It would ask voters to increase the state’s sales tax by a half cent for a $3.5 billion bond for statewide transportation, and raise millions more for local road and transit projects. The bill cleared its first committee. It’s now expected to be defeated in the finance committee.

“I knew they were going to be tough sells from the beginning before I ever dropped this bill,” said Grantham.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colo. Springs, who is running for Congress, hasn’t said how he would vote. But it’s presumed that he’ll vote no. Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, is opposed to new tax increases and thinks the state should re-prioritize existing funding. The third Republican on the Finance Committee said he plans to vote no.

“After we trim the hedge and mow the grass we can look at more landscaping but until that happens I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to do that,” said Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial. 

Tate, however, does support a separate related bill, Senate Bill 267. It would put in about a billion dollars for transportation. It would also enterprise a fee collected by hospitals, meaning the money would be moved into a different fund that doesn’t count toward the Taxpayers Bill of Rights — or TABOR — cap. That action would free up more money in the budget and prevent cuts to rural hospitals. 

But that measure is also in jeopardy. TABOR limits how much money the state can spend to inflation plus population growth. Once the state reaches that cap money must be refunded to voters. Republicans want to lower the cap, Democrats do not.

“I have come more than halfway and that ain’t enough,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “I was interested in saving hospitals and they’re interested in keeping more taxpayer dollars. I don’t know where this goes from here.”

Democrats countered that they were negotiating in good faith but don’t want to lower the TABOR cap by Sonnenberg’s amount.

“It’s not that we’re unwilling to compromise but we can’t compromise on a $330 million deal,” said Sen. Minority leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who is one of the bill’s main sponsors along with Sonnenberg….

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