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Plan would free P-20 spending from TABOR

An education advocacy group and a veteran legislator Wednesday proposed a solution to what they see as severe underfunding of education – exempting such spending from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

A resolution proposing that change is expected to be introduced in the legislature this week by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora. If approved by 44 representatives and 24 senators – a high hurdle – the measure would go on the November ballot.

Passage would mean lawmakers could raise taxes and other revenue without asking voter approval for those new levies, if the new funds were earmarked for education spending, from preschool to university.

Regardless of its ultimate fate, the proposal sets up an interesting discussion in a legislative session that’s been forced to make deep education cuts and has less than 50 days to run.

The idea is being pushed by Great Futures Colorado, a coalition organized by Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school support.

Great Futures includes the Colorado PTA, Associated Students of Colorado, the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Padres Unidos and a variety of smaller groups.

Like any political movement, the ballot-measure effort has an acronym – DECIDE. (That stands for Decide: “Educations Cuts or Invest in our Democracy and Economy.”)

“This is a crisis.” Colorado “may be heading into something of a lost decade” for schools, said Lisa Weil, Great Education policy director.

“We’re at the end; we can’t cut any more,” said an emotional Kristi Hargrove of Gunnison, a Great Education and PTA board member who identified herself as a Republican.

The proposal comes in the middle of a legislative session that is seeing unprecedented cuts in state support of K-12 education. Lawmakers already have sliced $130 million from current, 2009-10 spending. House Bill 10-1369, the proposed 2010-11 school finance bill that’s up for Senate committee consideration Thursday, would cut state school support next year to $5.4 billion. That’s $260 million less than actual state support in the current budget. The trim may go deeper before lawmakers are finished.

Compared to actual 2009-10 spending, the proposed cut is about 6 percent. When compared to what funding would have been under the full terms of Amendment 23, the reduction is more than 8 percent.

Budgets for state colleges and universities are being held stable only with federal stimulus money and 9 percent tuition increases, and those budgets face significant cuts in 2011-12 after the stimulus disappears.

Proposal faces stiff challenges

Despite lawmaker concern about those cuts, approval of Benefield’s resolution faces tough challenges. A referred constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each House – 44 representatives and 24 senators. Democrats hold majorities of 37 in the House and 21 in the Senate. Most Republicans are adamant opponents of tax increases and fierce defenders of TABOR, and many favor greater school choice and even vouchers as ways to deal with school funding.

(In 2008, even Andrew Romanoff, the popular Denver Democrat who then was House speaker, couldn’t gather sufficient support for a different school-funding plan, House Concurrent Resolutio 08-1014. Romanoff and supporters ultimately put the measure, called the Savings Account for Education, on the ballot by citizen petition, but it was defeated that November.)

“I can’t sit back and do nothing,” said Benefield when asked about the odds of passing her measure. “Let’s start the conversation.” She said her first move would be to approach the eight Republican representatives who voted no on HB 10-1369 Monday and seek their support for the resolution.

If the measure does make it to the ballot it would face other challenges. The high-profile races for U.S. senator and governor will draw a big share of attention and contributions. Many voters are still nervous about the economy, and some small-government groups and voters have been energized by the health care debate in Washington. And, some good-government groups may be more interested in fighting three ballot measures that would severely limit state and local government spending and borrowing.

Weil acknowledged that her coalition hasn’t yet worked on organizing or fundraising for a possible fall campaign.

The successful statewide fiscal measure Referendum C passed in 2005 with the broad-based and well-financed backing of business, civic groups and both parties, including Republican Bill Owens, governor at the time. (Ref C was a five-year TABOR “timeout” that allowed the state to keep revenue that otherwise would have had to be refunded. Its pending expiration has increased anxiety about funding education and other state programs.)

Benefield said she hasn’t yet thought through how interest groups that support human services, environmental causes, public safety and transportation improvements would react to a measure that seems to favor education.

Weil’s comments indirectly acknowledged the difficulties. “We’re going to give this a go…We just want to start the debate,” she said, also using the phrase “whenever it goes to the voters.”

Key interests missing from event

Notable for their absence at Wednesday’s news conference were representatives of the “Three Cs” (the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives), Democratic legislative officers, business leaders or higher education executives.

Weil said the Great Futures effort only got rolling in January and that the group felt it needed to move before the legislative session progressed any further. She said she’s talking with business groups and others about the plan.

Representatives of the mainline education interests were nuanced in their reactions.

“It’s a creative proposal; I would applaud their effort,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the school boards association. She also noted that the plan doesn’t address Colorado’s broader problem of conflicting constitutional provisions.

Asked about the resolution’s chances, Urschel said, “It might be a little late in the session to get people on board. [But] I can’t say that it wouldn’t happen.”

Bruce Caughey of CASE said, “They’re forcing the right conversation, and it’s timely” give K-12 budget cuts.

“We really haven’t looked at as an organization, but the ideas are consistent with what we’ve been thinking.”

Like many Front Range school districts, the CEA took a snow day Wednesday, and a spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Three Cs belong a group named Believe in a Better Colorado that has been advocating for a broader fiscal fix, as are a number of other groups, including business and civic organizations. A measure pending in the legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-001, would ask voters to create a special commission with power to recommend comprehensive changes to constitutional provisions governing finance.

Amendment 23 no longer the answer

Since 2000 Colorado school funding has been governed by Amendment 23. It requires annual state support of schools to be calculated based on enrollment growth and the Denver-Boulder rate of inflation. It also requires a 1 percent annual “bonus” increase on top of that, although that provision expires after the 2010-11 budget year.

A23 supporters hoped it would be a mechanism to return school funding to the levels of the 1980s and would provide a floor above which school spending could rise. Instead, the legislature, its options restricted because K-12 spending takes up so much of the state general fund, has tended to use it as a ceiling in order to have money available for other state programs.

The A23 formula has generated increased school spending every year until now, when state revenues have become so tight (and inflation has shrunk) that the state can’t afford to fund schools under interpretation of A23 that’s been used in the past. Up to now the formula has been applied to all state school support.

The administration of Gov. Bill Ritter and many legislators now subscribe to an interpretation that A23 applies just to base per-pupil support and not to the so-called “factors,” additional money that is used to tailor aid to individual districts based on cost of living, percentages of at-risk students and other factors.

School funding also is at issue in a lawsuit pending in Denver District Court. The case of Lobato v. State argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

A court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have substantial financial impacts for education, but a final decision likely is years in the future.

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