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K-12 needs more money – with strings

Public school funding tied to student outcomes, higher education support and the expansion of preschool and full-day kindergarten should be top state priorities, according to the board of directors of TBD Colorado, the group that’s spent more than a year studying and sampling public attitudes about major issues facing the state.

Word cloud of discussion topics at a TBA Colorado public meeting.
Word cloud of discussion topics at a TBA Colorado public meeting.

Another highlight of the report, distributed Wednesday morning during a meeting of the larger TBD Advisory Group at the Denver Botanic Gardens, was the recommendation that the state tackle the constitutional and fiscal conflicts created by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and the Gallagher Amendment, which controls property taxes.

“Colorado’s path forward is fiscally unsustainable,” said Greg Maffei, chair of TBD’s board. “The state will be unable to grow itself out of the fiscal gridlock.”

Other priorities recommended by the report include health care (expansion of home-based care, more managed care, prevention programs), the state budget (dealing with long-term revenue challenges, greater efficiencies), state workers (fund the merit-pay system), and transportation (more funding, alternative funding methods, more public-private partnerships).

Many of the recommendations are at the several-thousand foot level, and most touch on problems and issues that other study groups and policymakers have been raising for years.

Where the TBD (it stands for To Be Decided) recommendations go next may depend significantly on Gov. John Hickenlooper – the man who kicked off the whole process in the first place.

Hickenlooper, speaking with reporters after the recommendations were presented, said, “We’re trying to give the public facts” about the challenges facing the state. He said he plans to “continue to build on this process.”

The governor said TBD is partly about reaching agreement on priorities. “You can’t do everything. The bucket list is too long.”

He declined to say which of the TBD priorities are top issues for him. But the recommendations document does specifically note that the recommendations for increased preschool and full-day kindergarten and boosts in K-12 and higher education funding are reflected in Hickenlooper’s proposed 2013-14 budget. (See this story for details on the governor’s budget.)

Hickenlooper did tell the group, “We know that we need constitutional fiscal reform, but how do we look at implementing that?”

Shortly after Hickenlooper launched TBD in early 2011, the whole project was spun off to an independent non-profit group. The governor and the TBD leaders repeatedly stress that the process is independent of state government and receives no state funding. Skeptics – primarily Republicans – have questioned the process as a tactic to provide political cover for future efforts to weaken TABOR, raise taxes and increase the size of state government.

What TBD is recommending

Here’s a summary of what the report recommends for education:

  • Legislation should be considered to expand the number of children in the state preschool program and full-day kindergarten.
  • “Policymakers and Coloradans should continue a conversation that focuses on how additional revenue could be targeted to improve outcomes for students. A revenue increase should be pursued only if these additional dollars come with complete transparency, accountability and are linked to improved outcomes for students.”
  • “Coloradans must choose how to best finance substantial investments in Colorado’s system of higher education.”
  • “School districts should consider consolidation to improve efficiency and responsiveness to local students’ needs.”

Here’s what the report suggests on the state budget and constitutional reform:

  • Continued study of options for dealing with the state’s long-term revenue shortfalls, including targeted increases with revenues devoted to specific programs.
  • Consideration of tax code changes that reflect a changing economy.
  • Greater local government efficiency, including consolidation.
  • “Additional public engagement” on constitutional reform.
  • Creation of a constitutional review commission to recommend needed changes in the document.

A full set of TBD recommendations, including background data, will be released in early December.

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