Supporters of a $950 million tax increase for K-12 public education publicly launched their campaign on Thursday by arguing that the tax is a smart investment that will eventually drive improved economic outcomes by producing a more skilled workforce.
The campaign, which got off the ground quietly in June under the name Colorado Commits to Kids, officially filed the signatures it needs to get the measure on the November ballot earlier this month and has been working on honing a clear message to voters.
State Sen. Mike Johnston, who spearheaded the school finance reform legislation that complements the tax proposal and who has been the main public face of the measure, emphasized both the public outreach that occurred as the school finance reform proposal was developed and the continued outreach that will be needed to generate support for the measure.
“I want to invite you to rest for about 10 minutes after this, and then work your butts off for the next 82 days,” the Denver Democrat said, echoing some of his earlier promises of a robust and energetic campaign.
The campaign also recruited Mike Ferrufino, the general manager of the Spanish-language radio station KBNO and chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver, to represent business interests in developing a skilled workforce.
“Like any business, when you invest intelligently and correctly, you get amazing results,” Ferrufino said
Much of the debate centers around whether taxpayers should shoulder the nearly billion dollar burden of the proposal, but Ferrufino argued the sacrifice for individuals is small compared to the benefits of improved educational outcomes.
“Not much is needed from us,” Ferrufino said, saying that the average family would pay roughly an extra $2.50 a week towards the education tax.
Supporters and opponents disagree on how much the measure would change Coloradans’ overall tax burden compared to other states, with advocates arguing that even with the tax increase, citizens will still pay far less in taxes than they would elsewhere in the country.
“Some people say we can’t afford this,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told the crowd. “We [will] still [be] competitive with every one of our neighboring states and we’ll be able to say that we have the most robust, innovative education system.”
Historically, general tax increases for education have not fared well at the ballot box, with only two ballot measures related to education passing since the early 1990s. But Hickenlooper later told reporters that he believes that voter support for local tax increases for education indicates that there is a public willingness to increase spending on public education.
“Even last year, if you look at the mill levy increases, there were over a billion dollars, $1.2 billion of mill levy increases that pass, and that’s all real estate tax – that is a very disproportionate burden,” Hickenlooper said. “Do you want to just keep going on and doing mill levy after mill levy, or do you want to solve this on a statewide basis?”
The governor also argued that the current tax proposal is qualitatively different from previous tax-increase campaigns because it is coupled with a plan – laid out in SB-213 – that delineates exactly how the new revenue will be spent.
“When is the last time we tried something on this scale, a reform with specific details about how the money is going to be spent?” Hickenlooper said. “The previous efforts were, ‘let’s raise our taxes, and we’ll spend the money wisely.’ People don’t like that.”
Opponents of the ballot measure, who have organized under the group Coloradans for Real Education Reform, picketed across the street from the launch event at Green Mountain High School in Jefferson County. Using estimates that the tax would cost Colorado families an average of $250 a year, they displayed a table stacked with the school supplies they said a hypothetical family could buy with those funds instead.
“We need to reform the system first before we raise taxes on Colorado families,” said Kelly Maher, the executive director of the anti-tax group Compass Colorado. Maher argued that many of the provisions, like increased transparency on school-level expenditures, could be accomplished without new taxes using funds from the state education fund’s current surplus.
“The fact that they are holding these ostensible reforms hostage to a billion dollar tax increase is unacceptable,” she said.
But Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson dismissed the argument that an influx of new tax dollars won’t necessarily drive better academic outcomes, arguing that strategic investment in efforts like class size reduction, improved teacher training and longer school days.
“It’s not just that you disperse the funds in a random fashion,” Stevenson said. “I think it’s sophistry to say that money doesn’t make a difference.”