The City of Boulder enjoyed substantial success in last year’s session of the Colorado General Assembly, Carl Castillo, policy advisor for the city asserted at a PLAN-Boulder County forum on January 14, but this year it will probably concentrate more on “playing defense” to try to block bills that it finds troubling. Among these harmful bills, Castillo said, were “Arizona-style” immigration measures and proposed legislation to repeal increases in fees approved last year and also to renew certain tax exemptions that were eliminated by the last session of the General Assembly.
The forum, which focused on the city’s legislative agenda and the actions that the Colorado General Assembly is expected to take in this session, also featured State Senator Rollie Heath and State Representative Deb Gardner as panelists.
Although the city is likely to assume a more defensive posture in the General Assembly, Castillo explained that this session it will also promote four legislative priorities that have been established by the Boulder City Council:
- legislation that would enhance the ability of local governments to develop and implement effective energy strategies, such as, perhaps, “community choice aggregation.”
- legislation that would grant in-state status at Colorado institutions of higher learning to certain undocumented young people who have graduated from high school.
- legislation that would encourage waste reduction and diversion efforts, such as recycling of electronic equipment, collecting information on diversion rates by cities over 25,000 in population, and establishing economic development zones for recycling operations.
- legislation that would require federal transportation funding beginning in 2012 to be allocated by the state to projects which would result in the smallest increases, or greatest decreases, in vehicle miles travelled (VMT), rather than continuing the current allocation scheme which essentially ignores VMT.
Castillo said that the city’s positions on about 90 percent of the bills of interest in the General Assembly are represented by the Colorado Municipal League. Approximately 700 bills are introduced in every session, he said, and about 100 usually affect municipal interests and precipitate lobbying by the Municipal League. He recognized that Boulder’s goals sometimes conflict with those of the League. Such a conflict emerged in the last session, when the city, along with some other jurisdictions such as Boulder County and the City of Louisville, backed a bill which the League opposed to limit the use of tax-increment financing to build urban renewal projects on greenfields.
Castillo said he counted the passage of the tax-increment financing bill as one of the city’s major legislative successes in the last session. The others that he mentioned as major victories were approved bills that authorized “community solar gardens,” reformed “payday lending,” and imposed new regulations on the owners of mobile home parks.
Castillo noted that the city also lobbies the federal government. Congressman Jared Polis and Senator Mark Udall have warned the city that earmarked funds will not be appropriated this year. Castillo claimed that one casualty of that new policy is $250,000 for a bike sharing program that the city had expected to receive from the federal government.
Castillo commented that a common reaction to Boulder from federal officials is that it already is showered with lots of federal money and that grants and loans should go to less favored communities. However, Castillo said that the city is trying to counteract that attitude by presenting itself to federal officials as a valuable learning laboratory for sustainability, where federal funds can have maximum impact. He revealed that a congressional field trip to Boulder has been scheduled for August.
Gardner and Heath predicted that at least some legislation will attract bi-partisan support, including a plan to re-district Colorado’s congressional seats, a bill that would change the way state funds are allocated to institutions of higher education on the basis of the number of degrees granted, rather than the numbers of students, a bill to tighten the requirements for amending the Colorado constitution, and a bill to encourage more recycling of asphalt.
Gardner reported that she is a co-sponsor of a bill to collect data on waste diversion rates by cities over 25,000 in population, as a pre-cursor to possible future legislation to set recycling goals and incentives for cities. She also is working to devise legislation to create recycling enterprise zones, such as Utah already has established. She observed that her constituents had told her when she was campaigning for election last fall that their major concerns were jobs and education. She claimed that more recycling and waste diversion would create jobs.
Heath, who co-chairs the General Assembly’s bi-partisan, re-districting committee, continued to express alarm about the fiscal condition of Colorado. He noted that Colorado is last in the nation in per capita funding for higher education funding and for mental health. He said that state spending on roads and bridges is half what is needed for adequate maintenance. Colorado’s level of state and local taxation is the 47th lowest. Yet it is the seventh wealthiest state on a per capita basis, he claimed. The state faces a $1 billion budget “shortfall” this year.
He observed that a comprehensive tax study, conducted by an assembled panel through the University of Denver and funded by private donations, will come to the Colorado General Assembly before February 1. He voiced hope that it will conclude that the fiscal status quo is not acceptable. Heath said that an additional $2 billion a year in revenues would be needed for Colorado to reach the average level of state spending in this country and that $9 billion more a year would be needed for it to attain the top ten percent.
Heath asserted that returning the Colorado income tax from the current 4.63 percent rate to the former 5.0 percent would raise $350 million a year, and restoring the state’s sales and use tax rate to the former 3.0 percent from the current 2.9 percent would raise another $300 million a year. He ventured that taxes on services may be needed and noted that various states tax 27 different services. He also noted that the Gallagher Amendment, in combination with TABOR, imposes a disproportionate, and arguably unfair, amount of the burden of property taxes on commercial properties.
Heath called for a change in the common perception of taxes to a crucial investment, rather than a waste, or as a growing segment of the right wing claims, a theft. He foresees the possibility that the broad-based, political coalition which decisively defeated proposed Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 last fall will be regenerated in 2012 to help pass a comprehensive referendum or initiative increasing and re-structuring state taxes. He admitted, however, that he doubts that the General Assembly would refer such a measure to the voters, so it would probably appear before the public as an initiative, arising from grass-roots activity.
This article was corrected to clarify that the comprehensive tax study is a privately funded study.