Use specific ownership tax for state transportation funding? Forget it.

We’re lucky in Colorado. There has always been a sense over time of doing things together between the state and municipalities. Home rule is respected, and the ability of city and town leaders to make decisions in their own communities to advance their own best interests is a cherished value.

This partnership is especially reflected in state-shared revenue relationships.

We are a fiscally decentralized state. Municipalities raise far more revenue locally and receive much less in state shared revenues. However, there are some significant examples where the state does step up to the plate to aid cities and towns, and the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF) is Exhibit “A” in that regard.

The state shares the gas tax and various motor vehicle registration fees with municipalities and counties on a formula basis. In 2018, we expect this amount to be around $144 million. This sharing arrangement has been in place for decades and rarely has been questioned. There is also a set aside for Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) transit grants, municipalities may use their HUTF proceeds for multi-modal projects, and the General Assembly has authorized regional sales and property taxes for transit. In the area of aviation, the state shares a portion of the aviation fuel tax with municipal airports.

It is an admirable system which has stood the test of time. Once again, it is time to “pay the piper” with additional transportation and multi-modal funding both for CDOT and for municipalities.

Finding the right funding solution

No one at the Capitol disagrees that something needs to be done; the challenge is crafting an appropriate solution.

We came awfully close last session with a bi-partisan bill crafted by Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, and Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. It would have raised significant new dollars through a referred state sales tax increase more than doubling the amount of money each city and town is currently getting under the HUTF formula; and municipalities could have used the money for all sorts of local needs in transportation. Unfortunately, it did not pass.

At the moment there are a number of proposals being floated under the Gold Dome and by various interests outside the Capitol through the initiative process. Many are well intentioned. However, there is the law of good intentions and the law of unintended consequences. There is one glaring example that needs to go away, and quickly.

Using the Specific Ownership Tax is the wrong approach

According to a recent story in the Denver Business Journal, there are groups with which we are familiar circulating the idea of tinkering with the specific ownership (SO) tax for statewide transportation funding. They have recently been doing some statewide polling. The SO tax is assessed on motor vehicles annually based upon value and age. It is treated as a property tax, and it is generally distributed back to property taxing local governments (municipalities, counties, special districts, and schools) based upon the percentage each local government collects in property taxes as a percentage of all property taxes collected in that particular county. It has been a critical source of local revenue since 1937, and local governments can use the revenue for whatever purposes they deem.

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To those outside special interest groups enamored with this idea, we say, “drop it.” SO tax is a local government revenue source in lieu of a property tax – and for various local governments like school districts, a very important local revenue source. To raise it and use it for some other purpose breaks with a time-honored a state and local partnership as it relates to the SO tax.

Messing with the SO tax is a non-starter – certainly for municipal interests, and we think for other local governments, as well. It will be difficult enough to find a statewide solution without unnecessarily expending effort on tapping an inappropriate source of revenue. As it is said at the under the golden dome, “to be continued.”

CML Executive Director Sam Mamet and CML Legislative & Policy Advocate Morgan Cullen contributed to this blog

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