As the General Assembly gets in full swing — there are a few things on the minds of the Colorado Springs business community.
Getting to Denver easily tops that list.
The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce says transportation is one of their main priorities, keeping expanding Interstate 25 at the top of the minds of every member of the legislative delegation from the region.
“We have a number of statewide partners on transportation issues,” said Rachel Beck, chief economic development officer for the chamber. “Everyone is interested – industry groups, chambers, regional groups. There’s a business transportation coalition, essentially people who are interested in the topic locally.”
There’s so much interest in widening the 17-mile stretch of Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock that leaders are now attempting to secure funding for the multi-billion-dollar project.
“We do most of our transportation funding through a gas tax,” Beck said. “And that hasn’t been raised since 1991. We haven’t kept pace with the marketplace and capital construction costs — both have risen much faster. So finding funding is a big part of what we’re interested in doing.”
And they are interested in all the solutions, she said. A suggested way to fix state funding: Remove the hospital provider fee from the general fund to an enterprise fund. Mayor John Suthers says the issue is clear; the fee that hospitals pay to receive more federal money isn’t a tax and doesn’t belong in the general fund.
But Beck says the chamber isn’t interested in any single solution to solving the state funding crisis. Even in boom economic times, the state must maintain reserves below a certain level, when that level is hit, it automatically triggers taxpayer refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“I don’t think there’s one single funding source,” she said. “There’s no silver bullet that this is the way we need to handle funding. Our stance is all options are on the table.”
Except for one, that is.
Some people have floated a sales tax increase to fund transportation. Beck says that would put the Springs in an unenviable position.
“We’re not real excited about a sales tax,” she says. “Ours is already above 8 percent — it puts us at a competitive disadvantage with other cities from our region.”
But the chamber is no one-hit wonder. Instead, it has a raft of ideas and solutions that it will promote during the General Assembly.
Workforce development is another big issue in Colorado Springs — and for a wide array of companies. Manufacturers need skilled labor; construction companies need workers; high tech companies need software engineers and cybersecurity experts.
“It’s a big emphasis for us,” she said. “We hear about it from a lot of members that we need a prepared, educated workforce. We’ve seen a number of bills in the legislative session about that in the past. They tend to focus on helping service members, disabled members of the community, find jobs. We need something that addresses the wider business community, something that won’t just help 25 people a year.”
Beck acknowledges that college isn’t for everyone, and that some schools tend to focus on post-secondary education to the exclusion of all else. But that’s doing students — and companies — a big disservice.
“There are a lot of career options out there,” she said. “There are certifications, there’s vocational education. We just need to figure out ways to remove barriers so we can get more valuable jobs to the community. There are well-paying jobs, jobs that can support a family, out there that don’t require college. We need to connect people to those jobs.”
And there’s another issue that failed to gain traction last session, but that the Chamber of Commerce is throwing its full weight behind. It also has the support of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.
It’s changing the construction defects law. Under current law, if one homeowner sues for construction defects in a townhouse or condominium development, all the homeowners are enjoined in the suit. As the case drags on, owners can’t sell their unit, and once the percentage of renters gets too high, banks won’t lend money to buy units in the development.
It all boils down to this: Developers are hesitant to build townhomes or condos in Colorado because of the construction defects law — and it’s one of the more affordable ways to become a first-time homeowner, Beck says.
“This issue is important to our members, it’s important to the community in terms of affordable housing,” she said. “If we don’t change this law, we might not have any affordable housing for those first-time buyers.”