Rising cost of living emerges as key issue at Colorado Statehouse — but parties are far apart on solutions

Colorado’s mile-high cost of living is emerging as a key issue for lawmakers in the 2018 legislative session — but so far, the two parties are prescribing vastly different remedies.

To Democrats, government should be doing more to alleviate the middle-class crunch with funding for new social programs and affordable housing.

“We have a responsibility to hardworking Coloradans to actually do something,” said Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, “not just throw up our hands and hope someone else fixes the problem.”

To Republicans, the size of government is precisely the problem; they’ve offered two bills already to cut taxes, even as Democrats are looking to raise new revenue.

“I think it’s a fundamental disagreement we have on what the role of government is,” said Rep. Cole Wist, the assistant House Republican leader from Centennial.

Both sides insist there are still opportunities for collaboration. And there are already two bills on the subject with bipartisan support to extend tax credits for affordable housing and child care.

But early on, the most ambitious proposals appear significantly more likely to land in a 2018 campaign ad than on the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

One thing all sides do agree on is the need for relief. The top House lawmaker in each party kicked off the session touting affordability as one of the most pressing issues in the state — a sign that the growing cost of living is becoming a statewide problem, not just one confined to Democratic strongholds along the Front Range.

The statistics are stark.

A new study on economic mobility from the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, found that wages in the state have been essentially flat since 2000, increasing just over 3 percent when accounting for inflation.

Meanwhile, housing costs have skyrocketed. Nearly half of all renters in the state are now considered cost-burdened — meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing. Buying the typical home in Denver requires a salary of at least $81,349.

To Democrats, the divergent trajectories of housing costs and wages call for major public investments in affordable housing — an area where Colorado spends little compared to other states.

One measure, defeated along party lines a year ago, to increase filing fees on real estate transactions is back for another attempt.

The most novel, and controversial, plan so far is a Rep. Paul Rosenthal bill to ask voters to raise a 25-cent tax on plastic bags in order to pay for housing grants.

“It’s becoming a business issue and not just a personal finance issue for our state,” said Rosenthal, D-Denver, who noted that car dealerships in his district are losing mechanics who can’t afford to live here. “I think tying the two together, we kill two birds with one stone — how do we help affordable housing while disincentivizing a negative for our environment.”

Republicans, meanwhile, view any attempt to raise fees as counterproductive to the goal of increasing affordability.

“Larger government solutions don’t drive prosperity — they really don’t,” Wist said. “And instead what they do is they result in more expense for businesses being passed on to consumers.”

Instead, Wist wants to see regulatory and tort reform, citing the costs of litigation for issues ranging from the Front Range’s dormant condominium market to the state’s high car insurance costs.

Republicans have also introduced bills to cut business personal property taxes and income taxes.

As with the Democrats’ plans to fund housing, don’t expect tax cuts to emerge from the split legislature. Instead, the stage is set for a fight over government spending that’s sure to spill into November, when the governor and other statewide offices are on the ballot.

Rising cost of living emerges as key issue at Colorado Statehouse — but parties are far apart on solutions

Colorado’s mile-high cost of living is emerging as a key issue for lawmakers in the 2018 legislative session — but so far, the two parties are prescribing vastly different remedies.

To Democrats, government should be doing more to alleviate the middle-class crunch with funding for new social programs and affordable housing.

“We have a responsibility to hardworking Coloradans to actually do something,” said Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, “not just throw up our hands and hope someone else fixes the problem.”

To Republicans, the size of government is precisely the problem; they’ve offered two bills already to cut taxes, even as Democrats are looking to raise new revenue.

“I think it’s a fundamental disagreement we have on what the role of government is,” said Rep. Cole Wist, the assistant House Republican leader from Centennial.

Both sides insist there are still opportunities for collaboration. And there are already two bills on the subject with bipartisan support to extend tax credits for affordable housing and child care.

But early on, the most ambitious proposals appear significantly more likely to land in a 2018 campaign ad than on the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

One thing all sides do agree on is the need for relief. The top House lawmaker in each party kicked off the session touting affordability as one of the most pressing issues in the state — a sign that the growing cost of living is becoming a statewide problem, not just one confined to Democratic strongholds along the Front Range.

The statistics are stark.

A new study on economic mobility from the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, found that wages in the state have been essentially flat since 2000, increasing just over 3 percent when accounting for inflation.

Meanwhile, housing costs have skyrocketed. Nearly half of all renters in the state are now considered cost-burdened — meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing. Buying the typical home in Denver requires a salary of at least $81,349.

To Democrats, the divergent trajectories of housing costs and wages call for major public investments in affordable housing — an area where Colorado spends little compared to other states.

One measure, defeated along party lines a year ago, to increase filing fees on real estate transactions is back for another attempt.

The most novel, and controversial, plan so far is a Rep. Paul Rosenthal bill to ask voters to raise a 25-cent tax on plastic bags in order to pay for housing grants.

“It’s becoming a business issue and not just a personal finance issue for our state,” said Rosenthal, D-Denver, who noted that car dealerships in his district are losing mechanics who can’t afford to live here. “I think tying the two together, we kill two birds with one stone — how do we help affordable housing while disincentivizing a negative for our environment.”

Republicans, meanwhile, view any attempt to raise fees as counterproductive to the goal of increasing affordability.

“Larger government solutions don’t drive prosperity — they really don’t,” Wist said. “And instead what they do is they result in more expense for businesses being passed on to consumers.”

Instead, Wist wants to see regulatory and tort reform, citing the costs of litigation for issues ranging from the Front Range’s dormant condominium market to the state’s high car insurance costs.

Republicans have also introduced bills to cut business personal property taxes and income taxes.

As with the Democrats’ plans to fund housing, don’t expect tax cuts to emerge from the split legislature. Instead, the stage is set for a fight over government spending that’s sure to spill into November, when the governor and other statewide offices are on the ballot.

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