Beginning July 1, Colorado drivers will pay higher taxes--we're told to call them "fees"--on every vehicle every year when we renew our license plates. The increase of $29 to $51 per vehicle is projected to generate $250 million annually to repair unsafe roads and bridges, Gov. Bill Ritter said when he signed the "fee" hike into law.
All this occurs under the guise of economic stimulus as Colorado Democrats learn from their Washington counterparts to strike quickly while the economy is on the ropes and the public is too worried about their own finances to pay attention to statehouse shenanigans.
To be fair, transportation funding from Colorado's fuel tax has been stagnant in recent years because it's calculated on a per-gallon, rather than a per-cent, basis. Higher fuel prices and better fuel efficiency keep total fuel consumption relatively flat. For the last 10 years, the state's share of fuel tax receipts never fell below $379 million but never grew above $430 million.
When the economy is booming, roads and bridges receive a tremendous bonus from the general fund ‹ income and sales taxes ‹ which nearly matched the fuel tax, adding $1.3 billion to the transportation budget from 2005 to 2007.
However, just hours after Gov. Ritter signed the vehicle fee hike into law, every Democrat in the state senate voted to sever this general fund lifeline to transportation.
If it sounds like Democrats are talking out of both sides of their mouths, it's because they are - at least, so far. One day, they say our roads and bridges are unsafe and demand more money from Colorado drivers. The next day, they take a hatchet to transportation funding.
Any sane person can be excused for wondering what they're drinking or smoking at the state capitol.
Sadly this is nothing new. Dating back to former Gov. Roy Romer, Democrats' favorite tactic has been to grow social welfare spending and leave transportation with scraps. Romer's approach was to tell voters that if they wanted more money for transportation, they should vote for higher taxes.
In 1997, Romer and Republicans reached a compromise that guaranteed the aforementioned bonus source of highway funding and limited general fund spending increases to no more than six percent per year.
Republican Gov. Bill Owens staunchly defended that compromise and worked out a similar agreement with Democrats in 2002.
Now that Democrats hold a monopoly at the state capitol, they seem intent upon smashing those agreements in order to boost social welfare spending.
Senate Bill 228 would eviscerate the limit on general fund spending, end a vital source of transportation funding, and allow rapid expansion of entitlements. Even Gov. Romer didn't suggest repealing this limit without the required public vote, but today's Democrats are above consulting lowly taxpayers.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Morse, nearly stepped in it recently when, reacting to opposition from Denver chamber of commerce, he declared, "Let's let the people's elected representatives decide that - not the chamber."
Better yet, Sen. Morse, let's let the people decide for themselves, as the constitution which you pledged to uphold requires.
Ironically, proponents suggest that eliminating a spending limit to facilitate more spending on social welfare will help Colorado "get out of a recession."
That's an argument with rife with economic illiteracy. If all spending limits disappeared tomorrow, state government still couldn't spend an extra dime. In a recession, it's the economy that limits spending. Moreover, Colorado's government doesn't fund the economy; the economy funds government.
If Democrats want to expand social welfare spending, they should be honest about it. If they believe transportation needs more money, they should first protect every existing resource. And if they want to repeal state spending limits, they should follow the constitution by asking the voters.
Mark Hillman served as senate majority leader and state treasurer. To readmore or comment, go to www.MarkHillman.com