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Drive to boost school funding underway

Colorado citizens this fall could get their second chance in three years to vote on new funding for the state’s schools and colleges.

Sen. Rollie Heath and four advocacy groups announced Monday they’re pushing ahead with a campaign to put the funding boost on the November ballot. If passed, the change would raise an additional $3 billion for schools over five years.

Calling the effort “a grassroots campaign to stop the maddening cuts to our schools,” Heath, a Boulder Democrat, said, “Doing nothing is not an option. We want to give voters a chance to invest in schools.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was flanked by 4th-graders from Wildcat Mountain Elementary in Douglas County as he launched his school-funding ballot measure campaign May 16.
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, was flanked by 4th-graders from Wildcat Mountain Elementary in Douglas County as he launched his school-funding ballot measure campaign May 16.

The campaign is named Support Our Schools for a Bright Colorado.

The plan would raise state personal and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent from the current 4.63 percent. The state portion of sales taxes would go from 2.9 to 3 percent.

The additional revenue could be used only for public schools and the state’s higher ed system and couldn’t be used to supplant existing funding. The measure sets 2011-12 spending for schools and colleges as a floor. Lawmakers would decide how the additional funding would be allocated among school districts and state colleges and universities. Ballot measure text.

The higher rates, which are the same as those in place before the legislature reduced them in 1999, would be in effect from 2012 to 2017.

Heath stressed that “this is not a permanent fix” but is intended to give education a funding respite while various groups work on a more comprehensive fix for the conflicting fiscal provisions in the state constitution.

Heath, a businessman and one-time candidate for governor, first raised the idea in February, shortly after Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed cutting K-12 spending for next year by $332 million. The cut subsequently got whittled to about $228 million.

Since then, Heath has been testing the waters, getting ballot language approved and has started to circulate petitions. He said Monday the campaign has raised about $100,000 from business-related donors and has 1,100 petitions circulating.

The organizations backing the initiative are Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for increased School Funding; the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group that drafted tax initiatives earlier this year but decided not to push them; The Arc of Colorado, an advocacy and service organization for the developmentally disabled, and New Era Colorado, a Boulder-based group that works to involve young people in politics and civic affairs.

Nuanced reaction to proposal

Absent from Monday’s news conference at the Capitol were representatives of the state’s mainline education groups.

Asked about that, Heath said, “I think you will see some but not all of those people” supporting the effort later.

In a statement issued after the news conference, the Colorado Education Association said, “CEA greatly appreciates the work Sen. Heath is doing to address the dire funding situation in Colorado public education. Schools, families and students need more friends like Rollie Heath, who is always focused on providing our children with the rich, well-rounded education they deserve.”

Melissa Tingley, president of the CEA-affiliated Boulder Valley Education Association, said that group is actively supporting the measure and members will circulate petitions.

Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said his group hasn’t taken a formal position but “not because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said that group’s board hasn’t yet discussed Heath’s initiative.

A wide variety of education, business and civic groups have been discussing possible solutions to the state’s fiscal challenges. But consensus hasn’t been reached on what a solution should look like, or on what year would be best to take a measure to voters.

Heath said the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce “is standing on the sidelines” and not supporting or opposing the measure.

Democrat Hickenlooper has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe voters have “any appetite” for a tax increase this year. The Regional Transportation District board recently decided not to ask metro-area voters for a FasTracks sales tax increase this November.

Republican officeholders, of course, are opposed to a tax increase in any year. Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, issued a statement saying, “This Democrat proposal to raise taxes will only hinder economic recovery and put added financial stress on already struggling families.”

Past funding efforts

Since passage of Amendment 23 in 2000, there have been additional discussions and attempts to improve school funding through ballot measures. Amendment 23 was designed to create a predictable and ever-increasing funding stream for schools, but its effects have been diminished by the economic downtown and a reinterpretation of its provisions by the legislature.

In 2008, then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff got a measure on the ballot called the Savings Account for Education. It didn’t have strong backing from education groups, which were focused on defeating other ballot measures, and was defeated by voters. Background story.

Last year, Great Education pushed the legislature to put a plan on the ballot that would have exempted education spending from the limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. That idea didn’t get out of the General Assembly. Background story.

Asked about Romanoff’s plan, Heath said 2011 “is a very different year” without the distractions of other ballot measures, congressional races and a presidential contest.

To get the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, Support Our Schools will need to gather 86,105 valid signatures of registered voters by Aug. 1. Political experts estimate 100,000 signatures is a good target to account for those that might be thrown out as invalid.

The secretary of state’s office said Monday that if the Support Our Schools plan gains sufficient signatures, it will be the only citizen initiative on the statewide ballot this year.

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