Is This When Colorado Stops Digging and Starts Investing?
Depth By A Thousand Cuts
The working assumption in the 2018 legislative session is that Colorado has money to burn. A growing economy, a budget surplus, and a forecasted uptick in revenue from the Tax Cut and Jobs Act tempted state legislators into proposing a slew of ideas that would take away tax dollars that support the public investments that make Colorado what it is. At the outset of the session, two different proposals emerged to cut the state income tax rate. Several other tax expenditure bills of varying degrees of effectiveness, efficiency, and equity were proposed as well. The total cost of these proposals was well over $1.5 billion. That's more than the entire state budget for higher education, human services, and corrections... combined.
So what happens when the economic conditions inevitably change? What happens when the increase in revenue from the federal tax cut doesn't materialize as forecast? What happens as our population grows and ages over the next two decades?
Fortunately, these proposals did not advance out of the General Assembly. But we know these ideas will keep coming up, so it's worth interrogating what cost would these ideas incur on Colorado's future?
Our state’s economy is not a static thing, and neither is tax revenue that supports the public investments that help protect and sustain the Colorado way of life.
Roads vs. Schools
Colorado faces an obvious need to invest in transportation and infrastructure. The ability for families, workers, and businesses to move about is an essential underpinning of economic prosperity. This didn't happen by accident.
The state has a $1 billion annual funding gap for transportation and infrastructure needs. The state gas tax ranks 40th in the country and has been static at 22 cents per gallon since 1991, when the average tank of gas cost less than half of what it is today. In the last 25 years, Colorado’s population has increased by 64 percent and the annual congestion time in major urban areas has increased 283 percent, while the CDOT budget has only increased 31 percent and total lane miles have only expanded by 15 percent.
Instead of taking the responsible approach to modernize how Colorado funds transportation, proposals emerged this past legislative session - and may emerge again on the ballot - to simply fund roads by taking away from every other public investment priority, including schools.
Be we know that false choice doesn't work, especially when Colorado is already behind in funding our schools.
Fortunately the legislature opted for a more prudent approach this year, voters will have the opportunity to do the same.