Tuesday, January 27, 2009

FASTER Bill Passes First Hurdle

A Democratic bill aimed at financing needed highway and bridge improvements and repairs in the state has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The FASTER bill, which would raise motor vehicle registration fees and raise more than $200 million per year, was approved today by the Senate Transportation Committee on a 4-3 vote.

The measure's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne, welcomed the bill's advance as a way of helping revitalize Colorado's economy.

"If we can create jobs while at the same time making our roads and bridges safer, let’s do it," Gibbs said. "I’ve been working closely with the business community, local governments and my constituents to make sure we start creating these jobs now.”

Although SB 108 cleared the committee with no GOP votes in support, some influential business interests are in favor of it.

“Colorado and this country are in unprecedented times,” Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Joe Blake told the committee. “At this moment we have a choice and a responsibility. We need to get Colorado back to work and Senate bill 108 provides stable and reasonable sources of funding to address the maintenance problems in our transportation system. This proposal will create needed jobs.”

The measure proposes to raise registration fees by about $30-40 year, raising $214 million in the first year of the program and $230 million each year thereafter. A press release issued by the Senate Democratic Caucus indicates that the average person in Colorado would pay $2.50 more to register their motor vehicle each year.

The money generated would be divided between bridge repairs and highway repairs and upgrades.

About $100 million would be dedicated to the bridge aspect of the program and would be directed toward repairing the 125 bridges in the state rated as structurally deficient. The money would enable the Colorado Department of Transportation to secure certificate of participation financing that in turn would permit needed repairs to proceed immediately.

According to the Colorado Contractors Association the bill, if enacted into law, would create as many as 30,000 jobs.

Gibbs has been working to secure Republican co-sponsorship of his proposal. However, according to a report in the Denver Post's Politics West blog, GOP Senate leader Josh Penry of Fruita said that Republicans want to use the effort to secure a permanent and stable source of transportation funding to secure "meaningful tax reform."

Republicans made their own proposal for transportation funding today. It would redirect tens of millions of dollars from the state's general fund plus 25 percent of severance taxes generated from oil and gas extraction activities into transportation.

Last year voters rejected a ballot proposition that would have authorized the use of severance taxes for transportation.

The General Assembly is considering spending cuts to close a shortfall this year, and an expected shortfall next year, in the general fund. The total amount of that shortfall is expected to be $639 million this year, according to Gov. Bill Ritter's budget director, and about $300 billion in FY 2009.

Current law specifies that no state money can be directed into transportation until the general fund has grown by 6 percent over the previous year.

SB 108 heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.