Paul Nitze: Guest Opinion
July 2, 2009
I’m embarrassed to say that I’m among the few people who finished all 1,008 pages of “My Life,” Bill Clinton’s self-serving 2004 autobiography. If you stopped reading a couple of hundred pages in, you made the right call. That first part of the book isn’t half bad though, and I’m hoping that Governor Ritter made it that far before putting it down.
An anecdote from early in the book concerns Clinton’s 1982 run for governor of Arkansas. Clinton had pulled off a stunning victory in the 1978 governor’s race, becoming the youngest governor of any state in decades. He pushed hard on a sweeping policy agenda, including a move to improve Arkansas roads by raising vehicle registration fees.
Voters admired his drive but rebelled at some of the changes. They thought he was too big for his britches, and they really hated the higher tag fees. So they voted him out of office in 1980, sending him into exile for a couple of years, and setting up a memorable race against Republican Frank White in 1982.
Sometime during that race, which Clinton won going away, he met a crotchety older man who told him he was a Democrat who voted for White in 1980. When Clinton asked why, the man said it was all about the tag fees. To his surprise the man went on to say that he was switching back to Clinton for the ’82 race. Wasn’t he still upset about the tag fees, Clinton asked? “I’m still madder than hell,” said the man, “but now that you’ve made that mistake once, I know you’ll never make it again.”
Colorado is a state of long-distance drivers. Denver offices are filled with suburban and exurban commuters, and residents of Pitkin, Garfield and other counties outside the Denver metroplex drive even farther. Yesterday a law went into effect raising tag fees across the state by an average of $41 per vehicle. That’s going to stick in the craw of a lot of Colorado voters the way it galled that Arkansas man 30 years ago.
It’s to his credit that the governor stuck his neck out on this one. At the close of a legislative session when the governor disappointed myself and many other Democrats by not pushing harder on some bills, he undoubtedly did the right thing on tag fees. So I am crossing my fingers that this is not the issue that sees him go down in flames next fall.
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The irony is that by pushing the tag-fee bill through, the governor only got us halfway to where we need to be on transportation. There is a half-billion annual budget gap between what the state has available in annual transportation funding and what we need just to keep our existing roads and bridges drivable. Higher tag fees will only raise $250 million per year. This will not fund any new expansion or improvement projects.
It comes as no surprise that Colorado voters are red-faced on this issue. No one wants to pay higher taxes when they can barely hang onto a job, and the job they do have pays less than it used to. Few people can simply choose to switch over to public transportation and put their car in the garage. Turn on your local talk radio station today and someone is likely to be fulminating about what it costs to register his truck.
But the advantage of raising funds through tag fees is that there’s a close match between the people paying the taxes and the people using our roads. Rural drivers get a better deal than urban drivers because they’re proportionally heavier users of transportation infrastructure.
Talk to anyone who’s spent time looking at our state budget, and he or she is likely to have transportation on the brain. Andrew Romanoff, one of the savviest legislators to come through the Capitol in years, describes transportation as a time bomb. Roads and bridges are deteriorating at a pace that far outstrips our predicted outlays on repairs and maintenance. What the governor and Democratic lawmakers did with the faster bill was the bare minimum to keep a Band-Aid on the problem for the next few years.
Republicans in the Legislature proposed no meaningful alternative source of revenue. Their bill would only have raised $100-150 million, which simply isn’t enough. That won’t stop Josh Penry and others from hammering the issue next fall when the governor seeks re-election. Let’s hope that voters don’t punish Ritter the way Clinton was punished in 1980. If they do, I don’t see him pulling off the comeback that Clinton engineered two years later.
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