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Tuition tax credits bill moves on to the House

Updated March 25 – Without further debate, the Senate Wednesday voted 18-17 for final passage of Senate Bill 15-045, which would create a system of state income tax credits for private school tuition, home school costs, and donations to private school scholarships.

The bill got a full airing and preliminary approval Tuesday after lengthy debate and two false starts.

Some form of tax-credit legislation has been introduced by Republicans in every session of recent years. None have gone very far, given Democratic or split partisan control of the legislature for more than a decade.

Prime sponsor Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, argued Tuesday that the bill is needed to put private schools and homeschooling on equal footing with public schools.

He said school choice would be strengthened by the tax credits.

The bill would allow a tax credit equal to half of the statewide per-pupil public school spending for taxpayers with children enrolled full-time in a private school. The credit wouldn’t apply to students already in private school but only to students who move from a public to a private school.

A credit of $1,000 would be allowed for full-time home-schooled students. People who donate to private school scholarships could claim a credit of half of statewide per-pupil funding or the amount of the scholarship, whichever is smaller.

Lakewood Sen. Andy Kerr led Democratic arguments against the bill, saying, “It’s not a front door voucher bill, but it is a backdoor voucher bill.”

Arguing that tax credits actually would undermine school choice, Kerr said “a select few people who can afford to will take this tax credit.”

Democrats used the time-honored tactic of proposing amendment after amendment, prolonging the initial discussion. All were defeated on voice votes.

Legislative rules allow amendments to be resubmitted after the preliminary consideration calendar is completed, so the Democrats did just that. All were again defeated, but one bipartisan change making it easier for lower-income taxpayers to claim the credit did pass.

Prompted by that, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, invoked a procedural maneuver to get a new cost estimate calculated for the bill. That sent the Senate into recess while legislative staff scrambled to write the estimate, known as a fiscal note. In the end, Democrats chose not to make an issue of it, and the Senate finally recessed just after 3:30 p.m.

The original legislative staff analysis estimated the measure would cost the state $12.1 million in 2015-16 and $37 million in 2016-17, involving 35,891 students in that second year. Its estimated the loss in tax revenues could reach $318.3 million by 2028-29.

The new fiscal note predicted an increase in costs starting in later years of the program, Steadman said.

Supporters of the bill argue public schools actually would benefit financially from the bill because they’d have fewer students to serve. But bill critics say that wouldn’t be the case because of districts’ fixed costs.

Tuesday’s prolonged discussions weren’t the first delay for the bill. Senators previously spent 40 minutes on SB 15-045 last Thursday and another 40 minutes on Friday, but both those debates were called off when the Senate ran out of time.

Tax break for teachers moves ahead

The Senate Finance Committee late Tuesday voted 3-2 to pass House Bill 15-1104, which would provide a small tax break for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies.

Teachers could deduct up to $250 from their taxable income, yielding a tax savings of about $10.

Sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, pitched the bill to his fellow committee members, saying it would “help encourage and support those teachers.”

The bill originated with a Republican House member, Rep. Clarice Navarro of Pueblo, but two Finance Committee Republicans voted no, Sens. Chris Holbert of Parker and Tim Neville of Littleton.

Get more information on this bill in this prior Chalkbeat story.

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