- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Aurora Sentinel, Dec. 11, on interstate toll roads:

Like it or not, we’re stuck, Colorado.

Every reliable study shows that the state has mounting transportation needs and woes, and more people will continue to pour into the state. At the same time, state legislators are deadlocked over finding serious money to fix the state’s serious problems.

The time for more toll roads in Colorado has arrived.

It’s no longer a question of whether we’re going to spend considerably more on expanding and fixing the state’s clogged and rapidly deteriorating roads. The question residents must answer - since Colorado state lawmakers won’t - is, “where’s the money going to come from?”

We’re talking big, big money here. Just a few months ago, state highway officials estimated Colorado needs about $9 billion just to fix and improve the highway system to the point of keeping it from failing.

Make no mistake about it. It’s failing. Denver interstates are impassible during rush hours that now begin at 5 a.m. and last until well past 8 p.m. most days. The once hour-long trips between Denver and Colorado Springs, or Denver and Fort Collins, rarely take less than two hours these days. And weekend runs to the slopes during ski season? Hours and hours and hours.

The road system that has changed relatively little since the 1960s is choked with traffic, and new residents continue rushing into the state.

Year after year, state lawmakers argue over where money might come from, but they do little other than leave residents sitting in traffic, motoring on third-world roads and shaking their heads.

Democrats and more than just a few Republicans made a passionate case earlier this year to ask voters to raise sales taxes for roads a paltry one-third of a penny on a dollar spent, but they were slammed to the mat by small group of Republicans who have a death grip on their party and the state senate.

For years in the GOP caucus, it’s been “no” to raising the state’s too-low gas taxes. “No” to sales taxes. “No” to anything that doesn’t take money away from already critically underfunded public schools, colleges, health care or other vital programs.

And the people still keep coming to Colorado, and especially the Aurora-Denver metro area. Spending every dime the state collects on roads, however, wouldn’t solve every statewide transportation problem. Mass transit plays a critical role in the puzzle. But effective, realistic mass transit and safe, functioning roads don’t preclude each other. Colorado has neither right now.

It’s time to set up toll booths on strategic parts of Colorado’s interstates to raise the money to at least fix and expand them without devouring what relatively few transportation dollars exist in the state.

It won’t be easy. Currently, federal law prohibits states from imposing tolls on existing interstate lanes. But here’s one of the very, very few times we heartily agree with the Trump Administration, which wants to lift those restrictions. We’ll point out the Obama Administration wanted to do the same thing but was thwarted by partisan politics a few years ago. No longer an issue, we hope Colorado and other states will compel this Congress and White House to push toll-road changes through immediately.

The need is great, immediate and overwhelming. The Colorado Department of Transportation has elevated an expansion of I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, near Monument, that will easily cost $350 million. Anyone who’s recently made that commute knows how maddening the bottleneck is, which consumes endless hours and gallons of gasoline as commuters park on I-25 to wait their turn to move on to even more traffic.

Somewhere between Lone Tree and the south side of Air Force Academy are perfect places to set up toll booths, similar to what’s on interstates all over the country.

The state should toll I-25 there, as well as I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins; I-70 east of Denver to at least Limon; and I-70 from Golden to at least Vail; and I-70 between Grand Junction and Aspen.

In identifying highly congested roadways that need and consume large amounts of Colorado transportation dollars, it’s clear that U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder also should set up tolls to pay for future maintenance and expansion. The road was built with tolls back in the 1950s and 1960s to begin with. The current private-public contract could be modified to accommodate the change.

Tolling makes sense because it raises cash dedicated to the cause, and those who pay are benefiting from the improvements when they fork it over and roll on. The trick to success and fairness all around here is to keep tolls cheap enough to be reasonable, and high enough to raise the cash needed to build more lanes and better roads.

What’s reasonable? How about starting the discussion at a buck or less?

Given current road counts here’s an estimate on what the state could raise from strategic points:

- U.S. 36 “The Boulder Toll Road” from Denver to Boulder: 82,000 cars a day raising about $30 million a year in $1 tolls.

- Denver to Colorado Springs on I-25: About 70,000 cars a day grossing about $26 million a year in $1 tolls.

- Denver to Fort Collins on I-25: About 80,000 cars a day raising about $30 million a year.

- Denver to the ski country along I-70 west: About 45,000 cars a day raising about $16 million a year.

And there are many more opportunities between Grand Junction and Aspen or Denver, I-70 east of Denver and I-25 between New Mexico and Denver.

Relatively small tolls from these strategic highways could be parlayed into serious borrowing power to move desperately needed improvements and repairs into the fast lane.

Inside the Denver-Aurora metro area, a separate, small tax on the region’s nearly 2 million registered cars, possibly $2 a month, could raise an additional $48 million a year to help pay for desperately needed improvements and maintenance in the metroplex.

Additional money could and should be raised by imposing extra fees on commercial transport vehicles, such as semitrailers and tourism cars. An increase in gas taxes accompanied by rebates for Colorado residents could raise millions more for state transportation needs. It’s unfair and unwise to allow for-profit businesses and an increasing number of tourists enjoy the hard-work of Colorado residents because we don’t have an effective mechanism to have them pay their part.

The alternative to funding road improvement with tolls or some other hike in taxes or fees is what you struggle with every day on your commutes in Colorado. And there is nowhere in Colorado that it’s not going to get worse. Much worse.

Ask any current reasonable, responsible state legislator, there is no Colorado budgetary largess just waiting to be pointed at the state’s dire transportation needs. There are only equally dire needs in education, colleges, health care and how Colorado will handle a growing aging population and worsening teacher shortage.

Nobody wants to pay highway tolls. But reasonable Colorado residents want to make sure we can all get to critical destinations safely and without giving up the quality of life and environment that has been a hallmark of this state long before many in the state legislature moved here and are now trying to erode it.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2BdkRux

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The Denver Post, Dec. 11, on the state treasurer’s pension system plan:

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton unveiled his plan to fix Colorado’s pension system last week, and while it represents an important conservative voice in the debate, it strikes us as a bit too extreme.

So far, three major plans for fully funding Colorado’s troubled Public Employees’ Retirement Association system have been proposed and all focus needed attention on the annual cost-of-living raises regularly paid to retirees - through good times and bad. PERA’s board suggests reducing the retiree raises to 1.5 percent from the current 2 percent, Gov. John Hickenlooper argues for 1.25 percent, and now Stapleton, who also is running the in the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary, is asking for there to be no more raises until the pension is fully funded.

Stapleton’s plan is ambitious, but likely too aggressive.

One of the greatest benefits of creating a collaborative multibillion-dollar investment fund to pay out retirement benefits is its ability to recover from losses - like the staggering 26 percent hit PERA took in 2008 - over very long periods of time. It’s unclear how long Stapleton’s plan would take to bring the pension into fully funded status, but it would likely be far less than the 30 to 40 years proposed by PERA’s board (assuming the stock market can provide an annual rate of return on investment of around 7.25 percent for the next three decades).

While other retirees suffered the immediate effects of the market crash, PERA retirees weathered the storm significantly unscathed, continuing to receive a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase until 2010, when it was lowered to 2 percent annually as part of the Senate Bill 1 reforms.

According to an analysis conducted by the nonpartisan staff for the Joint Budget Committee, PERA estimates that, relative to actual inflation, retirees have been overpaid by the equivalent of about two years’ worth of raises. All of the plans on the table agree that at least a two-year timeout of the cost-of-living adjustment, coupled with some reduction of the guaranteed raise going forward, would be appropriate.

We support a middle ground between Stapleton’s plan of nothing until brighter days and Hickenlooper’s plan of reducing the COLA to 1.25 percent. A longer timeout coupled with a lower annual increase would be the most fair way to address a large chunk of PERA’s funding woes. Already future retirees are paying more for less of a retirement benefit and taxpayers have shouldered too much of the burden through payments to shore up PERA that were disguised as part of the employer contribution system.

An analysis of Hickenlooper’s plan and the plan from PERA’s board illustrated the plans leave retirees picking up 23 percent and 17 percent of the unfunded liability respectively. That’s not enough considering current retirees are recipients of many of the expensive benefits taxing the system.

Right now the pension fund is about $32 billion short of the money it would need to pay out future benefits in a sustainable way. Stapleton argues, and most credit rating agencies agree - using the principles of the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council - that the unfunded liability is actually closer to $50 billion.

Hopefully PERA’s investments will perform as needed, but we think it’s likely there will be downturns of some magnitude in the next three decades, and it’s important PERA be in a better position financially when that economic downturn hits.

Editorial: http://dpo.st/2BiJeah

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The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Dec. 10, on defining art in Colorado cake shop case:

The U.S. Supreme Court grappled recently with the definition of “art.” In doing so, justices highlighted the intractable dilemma of deciding Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission - a landmark case with major ramifications for civil rights.

Either decision may be a no-win, revealing a conflict the courts cannot resolve.

The case involves Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who considers wedding cakes a canvas for art. If his custom designs are not true art, the court might order him to produce expressions for any occasion a customer demands. If his custom designs rise to the level of art, the court must decide whether government can require artists to create messages they don’t like.

We cannot have merchants turning down common, nonartistic transactions on a basis of religious objections to the lifestyles or personal characteristics of customers. This would defy decades of hard-fought civil rights progress.

Conversely, we do not want government requiring artists to perform on demand. With compulsory art, some will have pacifist poets writing lyrics to celebrate war.

The conflict began when an administrative law judge and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission punished Phillips for declining to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding. Phillips argues his art expresses personal emotions and beliefs. Same-sex marriages violate his religious convictions, so he cannot design heartfelt cakes for gay weddings.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked if the person who designs a wedding invitation is an “artist,” who should be allowed to discriminate on a basis of religious objections. Justice Elena Kagan asked about jewelers who make wedding rings, and the bride’s “makeup artist.” Justices were making points, not asking real questions, and did not wait for developed answers.

“The reason we’re asking these questions is because obviously we want some kind of distinction that will not undermine every civil rights law … including everybody who has been discriminated against in very basic things of life, food, design of furniture, homes, and buildings,” explained Justice Stephen Breyer.

The discussion conjures a famous opinion by Justice Potter Stewart, who could not define obscenity when explaining the ruling in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (‘hard-core pornography’), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” Stewart wrote.

To this day, society has never figured out how to draw the line between pornography and protected expression. Quite simply, the dilemma overpowers the wisdom and authority of the court.

Just as Stewart could not deliver a crisp distinction between pornography and protected expression, justices will not possibly deliver an opinion that distinguishes “art” from craft and other forms of expression.

What is art? We know art when we see it.

Phillips is part of a modern trend of cake artistry celebrated on the Cooking Channel, Food Network, TLC and WE with shows that include “Cake Hunters,” ”Last Cake Standing,” ”Cake Boss,” ”Aces of Cakes,” ”Amazing Wedding Cakes,” and more. Each cake is a boldly unique design that expresses an artist’s vision.

When Phillips designs a cake, he learns about the occasion and the people involved in it. If he feels inspired, he expresses himself with intricate designs. If not, he declines the contract. He has routinely declined custom designs for Halloween, bachelor parties and divorce celebrations. It is not the customers, it is the occasion that matters.

Phillips knows the difference between his art and his craft. He routinely creates and sells non-custom cookies, cupcakes and other goods to transgendered customers, and all others who come his way.

Again, what is art?

The market considers blasphemy a form of art. A crude painting of the Virgin Mary, speckled with elephant dung, sold at an art auction in London for $4.6 million in 2015. Racist songs that use the n-word and promote domestic violence are considered artistic expression. “Piss Christ,” a crucifix in the artist’s urine, won the “visual arts” category in a competition funded by the federal government’s National Endowment for the Arts in 1987.

The Supreme Court will decide whether governments can require artists to produce against their will. It won’t be easy. Try as they may, the country’s highest ranking jurists will not produce a useful definition of “art.”

Some human conflicts cannot be fixed at the courthouse. Consumers and merchants might have to work through this with mutual respect, cooperation, and a decision to get along and be good to each other.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2BiHH41

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The Pueblo Chieftain, Dec. 7, on installing deer fences along Colorado roads:

Recently, a La Veta woman was killed when the car she was driving along Interstate 25 near Walsenburg struck a dead deer. The impact was great enough to cause the car to swerve from the right lane into the median, rolling twice before coming to rest on its wheels.

Not only did 78-year-old Norma Heikes lose her life, the accident caused another car to wreck, which resulted in injuries to five people in the second car.

It’s a sad reality that accidents, even fatal accidents, are going to happen along the interstates. However, there are common sense steps that can be taken to reduce risk factors. One of these steps would be to put deer fences along all parts of the interstates that pass through Colorado.

No, the fences aren’t a perfect solution. Deer can and do sometimes jump over them. And it isn’t possible to fence off every road throughout the state.

Because of the higher posted speed limits, interstates are, at least in theory, attracting drivers who are traveling faster and therefore have less time to react when deer dart in front of them. Deer fences are a reasonable solution to reduce the chances of car vs. deer collisions.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2BftnZN


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