Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

State must change ways or fall behind in roads, law enforcement and college, officials say

On Sept. 9, the SIP panel— led by Director Jim Griesemer — heard from Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Russell George, who delivered his agency’s chilling prediction. Without dramatic changes in funding, Colorado’s roads and bridges will be in “maintenance only” mode. And that’s if a proposed ballot amendment gutting vehicle registration fees doesn’t pass. If it does, George said he doesn’t know where the money to fix 23,000 lane-miles of road and 3,700 bridges under state control will come from.

“There are some functions in life that no matter how you feel about government, you would rather have done by government,” George said.

The old model of gasoline taxes funding roads is falling short as cars get better mileage (and electric vehicles use no gasoline at all). Meanwhile, as Colorado attracts new residents, drivers are coping with congested roads and aging bridges.

And, he said, Colorado’s economy depends on a healthy transportation system. Manufacturers won’t build products in a state if they can’t ship them to customers. Businesses won’t locate in a state where workers waste hours stuck in traffic jams. And tourists will tire of a state where mountain highways are left bumper-to-bumper every weekend.

“We can expand or shrink our mission only depending on the money we have … We can only do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “If something doesn’t change, then what you see out there right now is the best transportation system we’re ever going to have.”

One idea being studied is the Mileage-Based User Fee. Under that system, drivers would use a transponder to keep track of the exact number of miles they drive then pay a fee based on their use of the roads. But George said he doesn’t see the political will to implement such a system.

It’s not just roads that demand money, however. Peter Weir, who was executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, warned that law enforcement and corrections are badly underfunded. The only way to address the shortfalls in a meaningful way, he said, is a dramatic overhaul of the Department of Corrections (DOC) and its mission.

Sentencing and parole should be reconfigured, allowing the DOC to do a better job of helping prevent recidivism, he said. And the system should be shaped to understand an offender’s root cause for acting out before the state ends up spending $32,000 a year to incarcerate them.

Currently, Colorado spends 9 percent of its budget on corrections yet offenders emerge from prison and commit new crimes more than half the time, costing the state more money and subjecting more victims to crime.

“We’ve got to do things differently, and there’s good reason to do things differently,” he said. “We can be both tough on crime and smart on crime.”  

Meanwhile, for those who want a better life and seek education instead of a life of crime, things are getting worse in Colorado, said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

A “perfect storm” of challenges is coming for higher education, he said. Finances are already an issue for Colorado colleges, the demographics are changing, and the revenue base that supports higher education is shrinking.

Dollars invested in higher education come back to the state in the form of higher salaries. But schools aren’t keeping pace with costs and aren’t tailoring their efforts to meet demand. Community colleges that serve emerging minority populations traditionally left out of higher education aren’t being funded. Meanwhile, four-year colleges are limiting enrollment and seeking only the best students. Without rethinking the mission of public higher education, Colorado risks alienating the growing cadre of Hispanic students and limiting their earning potential.

But some simple changes in policy could redirect resources to maximize benefits for Colorado, which stands to gain high-tech jobs if it can offer an educated workforce.

“We’ve got a perfect storm or a perfect opportunity,” he said. “It’s really our choice.”

The nonpartisan SIP panel of leaders in government, academia, business and public service will explore all facets of state governance, from expenditures and funding to their relationships with federal and municipal governments. Additionally the panel will study the way sub-national governments work in other countries. Griesemer said he hopes to have findings and recommendations ready by next summer.

The Strategic Issues Panel’s next meeting will be Sept. 23 from 8 a.m.–noon on the sixth floor of DU’s Daniels College of Business. Panelists will hear from the union that represents state employees. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, visit



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