By Ben DeGrow | Special to Colorado Watchdog
In Monday’s Denver Post, Monte Whaley provides the good news that nearly a third of total bridge repairs have been completed under a 2009 authority adopted by the state of Colorado.
Out of 160 on the list, 49 of the most dangerous bridges have been fixed. If anywhere there is nearly universal consensus on the role of government, then dealing with transportation infrastructure is it. But even though we may find the ends of the project good, the means to achieve those ends elicit some very real concerns.
The 2009 so-called FASTER legislation created the Colorado Bridge Enterprise as an authorized entity:
- To oversee more than 100 bridge repair and maintenance projects statewide;
- To impose a $41 surcharge each year on annual vehicle registrations; and
- To issue $300 million in taxpayer-obligated debt.
By creating the entity with “enterprise” status — “a government-owned business authorized to issue its own revenue bonds and receiving under 10 (percent) of annual revenue in grants from all Colorado state and local governments combined” — the Legislature bypassed the requirement of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) to first seek voter approval.
The Independence Institute, my employer, was first on the draw with a pair of issue briefs. The first broke down the “legal contortions” created the Colorado Bridge Enterprise as “government without the consent of the governed.” The second explained how the Enterprise’s revenue is really a tax but made to look like a fee — not exactly a first in Colorado — and, thus, violate constitutional taxpayer protections.
With a strong case laid out, the nonprofit TABOR Foundation represented by the public interest Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit last month against the state of Colorado, noting among other important observations:
“Almost half of Colorado’s 64 counties will receive no direct benefit from the Bridge Enterprise; nonetheless, the residents of these 29 counties must pay the same bridge tax as residents of the counties allegedly (benefited) by the tax.”
According to an earlier Post story, the state has “plans to issue another $400 million to repair a total of 125 crumbling bridges by 2017.” Maybe this time they’ll ask the voters first.
Given the fact that transportation infrastructure needs stand among the most widely recognized and supported government functions, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do so in the first place. Maybe they recognize that all the different taxpayer requests start to add up, and that an open campaign and favorable vote to repair the state’s bridges might weaken support for some future proposal to fund expanded government services.
It’s difficult to determine motives. But it should be simple and clear enough not to let the valid ends of fixing bridges justify the means of sidestepping the state constitution.