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Tax plan backers feel confident

Supporters of a proposed ballot measure to temporarily raise state taxes to fund schools and colleges are confident they’ll make the November ballot, announcing Thursday that they’ve gathered about half their target number of signatures.

“We’re going to make this … we’re going to be on the ballot in November,” predicted Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, a driving force behind the Support Our Schools for a Bright Colorado campaign.

The campaign announced it’s gathered more than 65,000 petition signatures towards its goal of 125,000. Organizers need to gather 86,105 valid signatures of registered voters by Aug. 1 to get a spot on the November general election ballot. Ballot measure campaigns typically try to gather a large cushion of extra signatures to allow for signatures that may be disqualified by the secretary of state’s office.

The proposal, currently known as Initiative 25, 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, estimated at about $3 billion over five years, 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. The higher rates, which are the same as those in place before the legislature lowered taxes in 1999, would be in effect from 2012 to 2017.

Heath, who started pushing the idea last spring as the legislature struggled with education budget cuts, has pitched the plan as a stop-gap to stabilize education funding while policymakers and officials work on a broader fix to the conflicting fiscal provisions of the state constitution.

The campaign has cast the petition gathering as a grassroots effort that’s encouraged supporters to download petitions from a website. Major support has been provided by Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for increased school funding, and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group that drafted different tax initiatives earlier this year but decided not to push them, partly because of lack of support from business groups.

The campaign also is using paid petition gatherers, Heath told Education News Colorado Thursday: “You can’t do this on volunteers alone.”

Those contractors are Samuel F. Lopez Jr. and Kennedy Enterprises LLC. Heath said the campaign is paying lower-than-standard rates because there aren’t other ballot measures being pushed for this year’s ballot, so business is slow for paid gatherers.

Heath estimates the petition-gathering effort will cost $150,000 to $160,000, of which the campaign needs to raise another $15,000. Three fund-raising events are scheduled in the next several days. The campaign got a kick start with a $100,000 donation from Denver oilmen Sam Gary and Ron Williams, whose Gary-Williams Energy Corp. is the major funder of the Piton Foundation. (The foundation is one of the funders of EdNews.)

The campaign won’t worry about raising money for an election campaign until after petition gathering is done, Heath said. “When we get to that point, the fundraising conversation changes dramatically,” he said.

A variety of civic, advocacy, business, education and other groups have been discussing possible measures to increase state revenues and clean up the constitution but haven’t reached agreement on the form of a measure or measures and when to propose it to voters.

While some of those groups share Heath’s concerns about school budget cuts, most are on the sidelines for now in terms of active support.

The state will spend about $3.3 billion on K-12 schools in 2011-12, with local revenues contributing another $2 billion. State support of higher ed this year is about $519 million, but state colleges and universities raise more than three times that amount from tuition and other revenue.

See this previous EdNews story for more detail on Initiative 25 and school funding.