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TABOR-busting resolution passes House Ed

The House Education Committee Monday voted 8-4 to pass House Concurrent Resolution 10-1002 to the floor of the House, where it likely faces lively and lengthy debate and an uncertain future.

The resolution proposes a constitutional amendment that, if passed, would allow legislators to approve tax increases without voter approval if the revenue would be devoted to education spending, from preschool to higher education.

To be placed on the ballot, the resolution needs two-thirds majorities in each House, something considered unlikely because the proposal isn’t expected to draw any Republican votes.

About 70 people signed up to testify at what turned out to be a four-hour hearing in the Old Supreme Courts Chamber, the Capitol’s largest hearing room.

The proposed amendment is the brainchild of Great Futures Colorado, a coalition formed by the advocacy group Great Education Colorado. Those groups have tagged the measure DECIDE, arguing that the voters should be allowed to decide whether to give the legislature the power to raise revenue for education without being limited by TABOR.

Great Futures organized a long parade of teachers, parents, PTA leaders, college students, a few little kids, school board members, policy wonks, elected officials, principals, teachers union officials and clergy to support the proposal, most arguing that Colorado has lagged behind the rest of the nation in education spending and that schools will be seriously damaged by pending cuts in school support.

Opponents were less numerous than supporters, but there still were plenty of them. Private citizens as well as speakers connected to the Independence Institute, the TABOR Foundation, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers and the Glen Beck-inspired 912 Coalition all criticized the resolution, calling it an attack on TABOR and voter say over government spending.

The two sides talked past each other to a degree, with supporters focusing on their perceptions of education’s needs and opponents highlighting government spending and taxpayers’ rights.

But none of the witnesses really touched on a third issue, whether it’s good policy to exempt education from TABOR but not other state programs.

Only Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, raised that issue, right at the end of the hearing.

“We’ve had to make significant cuts to other programs,” cuts the DECIDE proposal doesn’t address, he said. “I don’t think that this is the answer.”

“Inaction is no longer an option,” said Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education.

“We are no longer able to make decisions that are best for kids,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Colorado unit of the American Federation of Teachers.

The Old Supreme Court Chamber was packed April 19 for the hearing on HCR 10-1002.
The Old Supreme Court Chamber was packed April 19 for the hearing on HCR 10-1002.

Marty Nielson, president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, echoed the comments of many opponents when she said, “We all know it’s an end-run around TABOR.” She called the proposal “this charade which you say is for the children.”

Penn Pfiffner, a former Republican legislator and a fellow at the Independence Institute, said, “The real purpose of this measure is to get rid of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.” He also questioned how revenue earmarked for education could be kept separate from other revenues in the state budget.

(Speaking late in the hearing, after the room had largely cleared, Liane Morrison, Great Ed executive director, said, “It is not a frontal attack on TABOR. It is a frontal defense of our students.”)

After the last witness, Evergreen Middle School 6th grader Sophie Updike, testified in favor of the bill, Massey explained why he was voting no.

Uncharacteristically, no other committee member spoke. (Some Democrats privately agree with Massey.)

All eight committee Democrats voted yes to send the bill to the floor, with four Republicans voting no and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, excused.

The House measure has 29 Democratic sponsors in the House, lead by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada. The eight Democrats on the 13-member House Education Committee all are signed on.

The Senate prime sponsors of a companion measures, Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-002, are Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams of Aurora and Chris Romer of Denver. The other three sponsors are Sen. Bob. Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education; Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

No Republicans are signed on to the resolutions, either of which will need 44 House votes and 24 in the Senate to go to the voters in November. Getting those totals will require at least a few GOP votes.

The proposal is regarded by many as a “conversation starter” on the issue of school funding, which will be cut significantly in 2010-11.

Twin measures were introduced to ensure the idea will be discussed in both houses. If a single proposal dies in its house of origin, it never gets introduced in the second house.

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