Since long before the days of Ronald Reagan, diehard conservative Republicans have maintained that the government is too big and too expensive and that the glorious free market would solve all of our problems if Uncle Sam would just get the hell out of the way. In Colorado, conservatives such as Doug Bruce, the founder of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) have done everything in their power to limit government spending. In fact, they’ve done a damn good job.

Colorado doesn’t have much money to do anything anymore. Colorado is 49th in the country in K-12 education spending. University spending fell to 48th in the country two years ago. Public health funding is laughably lagging, except it’s not funny. Those things may or may not be scary to you depending on your own financial means (of course, there aren’t a lot of poor people who say the government spends too much money on public programs), but here’s something that should worry you: Our ability to fund basic infrastructure projects. Everybody drives on roads, and everybody is at risk when our basic infrastructure is threatened.

As the editorial board of The Denver Post explains:

The tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis has dramatically focused attention on the dangerous neglect of America’s basic infrastructure. We hope it doesn’t take a similar calamity in Colorado to spur state and local officials to address our own serious backlog of highway and bridge repairs…

…The neglect of Colorado’s bridges and roads is long-standing. Unfortunately, politicians prefer to pour money into dramatic new programs or buildings rather than the vital but unglamorous job of maintaining existing infrastructure. But voters can no longer tolerate such neglect. While it is rare that specific deaths can be attributed to failures of bridges or viaducts, poor maintenance and lack of safety devices do contribute to traffic accidents. And every motorist stalled in traffic understands how Colorado’s highway congestion undermines our state economy.

For all these reasons, The Post has long campaigned for better maintenance of the roads and bridges we already have as well as prudent expansions of our transportation system.

The problem, obviously, is money. About 75 percent of the current $805.6 million in the state Highway Users Tax Fund comes from fuel taxes. Colorado collects 22 cents on every gallon of gasoline sold and 20.5 cents on diesel fuel. But these fixed per-gallon taxes don’t keep up with inflation. Rising costs of asphalt, concrete and other construction materials mean that the fuel tax has lost more than half of its purchasing power since it was last raised in 1991.

In recent years, the state has tried to offset some of that loss by putting additional general fund money into the state highway network. But while the shrinking trust fund is shared with cities and counties, the additional funding from the legislature has gone to state needs alone. That worsens the problem for cities and counties, which actually operate eight times as many miles of highways as the state does. Any long-term solution to the state’s transportation needs must not overlook these local needs.

Gov. Bill Ritter has appointed a special committee to study Colorado’s transportation needs and recommend solutions to next year’s legislature. The Minneapolis tragedy only underscores how urgent that need is.

I’m certainly not in favor of out-of-control government spending (such as the spending we’ve seen under the Bush Administration, for example), but it’s long past time that we stopped listening to anti-government zealots like Bruce. A healthy and safe society isn’t free, and a government that doesn’t spend any money isn’t just irresponsible – it’s dangerous. Voters made themselves heard in 2005 when they approved Referendum C to inject some much needed funding back into government programs, but we’re not there yet.

We can keep an eye on the spending spigot, but we can’t – and we shouldn’t – try to turn it off completely.