An education group, with the support so far of Front Range Democratic lawmakers, is planning to ask voters this November to allow the state to keep more tax money for public schools. It’s a proposal that anti-tax groups would vigorously oppose.
Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, said her group is still in the very early stages of formulating language for a ballot initiative that, should it make it to the statewide ballot and win support of voters, would separate education spending from constraints imposed on tax revenue by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR.
“There is no other way to start to address the funding issues than to keep the revenues that are a result of a growing economy,” Weil said after a Dec. 17 town hall meeting at the Community College of Aurora. The meeting was led in part by state Democratic lawmakers from Aurora, including Sen. Morgan Carroll and Reps. Rhonda Fields, Jovan Melton and Su Ryden, as well as area education officials, including Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn and Cherry Creek Public Schools Superintendent Van Schoales.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian Independence Institute, viewed the news with a kind of exhausted skepticism.
“All I can say when it comes to tax increases and our opposition to them, past performance is a good indicator of our future activities,” he said. “Our hope is that sooner or later, instead of looking at the revenue side of this equation, which is the only way the takings coalition looks at it, is to start looking at the spending side.
“Why is it that, while (the number of) teachers per classroom has stayed at a stagnant level over the past decade, the amount of non-teaching staff has ballooned to an all-time high?”
Tax refunds and budget shortfalls
TABOR, authored by anti-tax crusader and onetime Colorado Springs state Rep. Doug Bruce, requires lawmakers to send refunds to taxpayers, even despite the fact that state constitutional Amendment 23 mandates education spending in Colorado keep pace with inflation, which it has failed to do over the course of years.
Weil said it was past time to cut education spending loose from Doug Bruce’s famous bill of rights.
“The first step is to make sure that when the economy is good we’re able to invest in the future, and the only way to do that in Colorado is to ‘de-Bruce’ — to have the voters state their values that every student needs to graduate ready for the world. The only way to do that is invest in our teaching core.”
Supporters of the idea have many steps more to take. The initiative language will have to be submitted to Legislative Council and then green-lighted by the state Title Board. Then they will have to gather at least 98,492 valid signatures to the secretary of state to vet. Most groups turn in something like double that number. And opponents will likely wage battles against the proposal at each stage of the journey, pressing legal challenges to the language and running public relations campaigns against both the signature drive and any voter persuasion efforts advanced by proponents.
Michael Fields, state director for small-government group Americans For Prosperity and a former school teacher, noted that Coloradans have voted down two previous ballot proposals to increase revenue for education.
“The voters were pretty clear that they don’t have an appetite to raise taxes, and taking back TABOR refunds is essentially the same thing,” he said. “The lessons is that the government, and the education system specifically, hasn’t made the case that they’re using the existing funds they have efficiently and I don’t think people have been convinced.”
Weil said Great Education Colorado and other groups like Build a Better Colorado have worked throughout 2015 to find the best way to address education funding for K-12 and to determine what level of appetite voters will have for a ballot proposal.
“There’s just a sense that we can’t let 2016 go by without giving the voters the opportunity to make a statement about where the state should go and what type of future we want,” Weil said. “I don’t expect it will be easy.”
She conceded that it’s probably easier to sell voters on the immediate benefit of keeping their tax money than it is to sell them on the longer-term benefits they might enjoy by giving over that tax money for education. But she is hopeful.
“I think Coloradans are going to vote their values,” she said.
State Rep. Fields said the current system is “shortchanging our kids.”
“We have to come up with a bipartisan approach, a pragmatic approach to address these funding issues for education,” she said. “We are spending more per prisoner in this state than we are spending per pupil.”
Carroll, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman this year, said funding was just one of a number of issues facing Colorado’s education system. She mentioned challenges tied to increased testing and to overworked faculty.
“There are literally dozens of different ways we can go with this,” she said. “I think the main thing is it has to be up to the voters. If we come up with something that — even if we think it’s good or if we don’t think it’s good, it doesn’t matter if it’s not going to pass. So this needs to be a bottom-up effort, where we figure out what, if anything, the voters would be willing to pass.
“I think people in Colorado value education,” she said. “I think they just want to know the money they’re spending is coming back into their local communities, that it’s transparent, that they’re getting a good education for it.”
Budget and ballot politics
Lawmakers tasked with slashing millions in programs from the state budget next year are already jockeying over a proposal, pushed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, to separate the state’s hospital provider fee collections from state tax collections. The provider fee is estimated to bring in $750 million this year. Should the Legislature reclassify the provider fee as an enterprise fund, that $750 million would no longer count as tax revenue, which would likely eliminate the need for the state to issue refunds to taxpayers and make program cuts.
Conservative lawmakers have opposed any change along those lines to the hospital provider fee as fiscal horseplay.
The politics around the two TABOR-related battles may well converge this year.
“This is going to be a tough fight, but I’m looking forward to it,” Weil said.