Reporters to Republicans: Where’s the Money?

Gov. Ritter is signing the so-called FASTER legislation into law today, after it cleared the state legislature last week. I wrote about this legislation in my final Rocky column. You’re excused for missing it, because the Rocky closed the day before my column was scheduled to run. It’s a low blow for me to be criticizing the Rocky’s coverage of the state legislature after the paper has died, but in some ways maybe you’ll find it refreshing. The final edition of the Rocky was such a love fest, it almost killed me. I mean, I enjoyed it, but you’d think a journalistic organ like the Rocky would have been a tiny bit more critical of itself.

In any case, below is my faster column that never ran. Fortunately, it criticizes the Post as well, and it’s relevant to state legislature coverage going forward.

If you’ve following the state legislature in the dailies, you know that both Republicans and Democrats have been telling reporters they want to fix roads and bridges in Colorado.

 The we-want-to-do-something theme comes across clearly, even if you read a fraction of the articles.

 So you’d expect journalists to tell us how much each side proposed to spend on roads and bridges and where they planned to get the money.

 Well, I just finished reading all the stories about highway funding in the dailies this year, and the coverage answered those two questions, at least regarding the Democrats’ proposal.

 But I’m left with only the vaguest notions about how much the Republicans were proposing to spend, and where they were going to get the money.

 In 15 of 16 articles, reporters wrote that Democrats wanted to spend between $200 and $265 million per year, depending on the article, and they’d get this money by raising average vehicle registration fees to $41 and adding $2 to rental car fees.

 But only two of the 16 articles provided a specific figure for the amount Republicans wanted to spend, $82 million under one proposal and $125 million under another. Even these figures were vague. The latter, published in the Feb. 5 Rocky Mountain News, was described as consisting of a $15 vehicle fee, “redirection” of the existing state budget, and severance-tax money.

 Instead of providing specifics, reporters wrote, in five articles, about the Republicans’ broad ideas to generate more transportation money.

 For example, a Rocky article Jan. 15 stated that Republicans wanted to leverage the “value of state buildings and sell bonds,” without offering a figure for how much this could raise.

 But the Rocky found space in the piece to quote Republican House Minority Leader Mike May saying, “The Republican plan is: Building roads, not bureaucracies.”

 Similarly, four articles stated that Republicans wanted to reallocate existing money in the state budget to transportation, but not a single story told us what they’d cut to free up the funds.

 Reporters should have given us more specifics about the Republican proposals.

 And here’s the key point: if Republicans couldn’t come up with specific funding sources and costs for their road proposals, then reporters should have informed us, repeatedly if necessary, that Republicans were not able to provide this specific information.

 Reporters also should have told us more often how much money Colorado highways actually need. Only three stories did this, reminding readers that a governor’s commission estimated that Colorado highways require $500 million – $1.5 billion per year, well above the Democrats’ proposal and way higher than the Republican’s vague proposals.

 Reporters should have reported whether the leaders of both parties, particularly the Republicans, think they’ve provided for basic public safety with their highway proposals. I didn’t see this addressed at all, even though the costs of repairing Colorado’s roads is so much higher than the figures debated at the Capitol.

 The transportation bill has cleared both the Colorado House and Senate, and Gov. Ritter is expected to sign it. So its day in the sun is gone.

 But with the state budget as tight as it is, you can count on seeing similar debates in the future over how to fund popular programs.

 Reporters should insist, repeatedly if necessary, that politicians who claim to support something, like transportation upgrades, be specific about 1) how much they want to spend, 2) where they’ll get the money, and 3) whether their proposals are will actually do the job.

 And their answers, or lack thereof, should be included in any article where a funding proposal is tossed around.


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