A new wrinkle

Revenue forecasts bring good news – and a big complication

Colorado tax revenues keep rising faster than state economists can predict them, a trend that might seem to be good news for education but which actually could make it harder to trim the $900 million shortfall in K-12 funding.

That’s because projected revenues are rising fast enough that they likely soon will hit a constitutional trigger that requires refunds of surplus revenues to taxpayers. If the trends continue, the 2015 legislature may have to set aside money in the 2015-16 budget to cover refunds in 2016.

The likelihood of reaching what’s called the “TABOR limit” was a key element in quarterly state revenue forecasts presented to the legislative Joint Budget Committee Monday morning by economists from the Legislative Council staff and the executive branch’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

“I’ve been thinking this has been coming for years,” said Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for increased K-12 funding. “It certainly complicates” school finance discussions, she added.

Weil isn’t the only person who’s seen this coming. State economists have referenced the TABOR limit in the last several forecasts. But hitting the trigger always has been far enough in the future that policymakers didn’t think too much about it. Now, it seems, the future is just about here.

The TABOR limit is part of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which required that state revenue growth beyond inflation and population increase in a given year be refunded to taxpayers. That limit was modified by Referendum C, a 2005 voted-approved measure that shelved the limit for five years and eased its restrictions after that.

Legislative economists estimate that Ref C, as it’s called around the Capitol, has enabled the state to retain and spend $9.8 billion that otherwise would have been refunded.

The last TABOR refunds were paid in 2005, triggered by a $41 million surplus in the 2004-05 budget year. The refunds averaged $15 per taxpayer.

Do your homework

Refunds receded into the realm of the theoretical after that as the recession pushed growth in state revenues well below annual TABOR limits. The March 2011 forecasts marked the turnaround for revenues, which have been on the upswing ever since.

Legislative economists estimated Monday that $125.1 million will have to be earmarked in the 2015-16 budget to cover 2016 refunds, and $392.6 million will have to be set aside in 2016-17 to pay for 2017 refunds.

Executive branch forecasters estimate the amounts to be refunded in those two years at $133.1 million and $239.4 million. (The two sets of forecasts offer differ in amounts.)

The legislative staff forecast estimated 2016 refunds at $11 per taxpayer, provided through the earned income tax credit and sales tax refunds. The larger 2017 refund would be provided by a temporary lowering of the income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 4.5 percent, plus more sales tax refunds.

TABOR refunds matter to education spending because they require lawmakers to consider yet another demand as they attempt to juggle competing state spending needs.

The state’s school districts took a $1 billion hit in expected funding after the 2008 recession, a impact known as the “negative factor” after the formula used to reduce K-12 spending in order the balance the overall state budget.

District leaders and lobbyists fought hard during the 2014 session to trim the negative factor, and lawmakers did make a $110 million cut. (Get background in this story.) Education interests have signaled their intent to push for trimming the negative factor further during the 2015 session, an effort likely to be complicated by the need to address the TABOR limit.

“It’s going to take a lot of conversation,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the group’s Capitol lobbyist.

The negative factor also is being challenged by a pending lawsuit (see story).

The amount of funding available for education also is a key concern for the state’s colleges and universities. Their state support has recovered modestly in the last two years. But the higher education system also is in the middle of fleshing out a performance funding system mandated by the 2014 legislature. Many in higher ed are worried there isn’t enough funding to allow that new system to operate properly. (Get background here.)

Lawmakers have an alternative to paying refunds – asking voters to let the state keep the money, as Ref C allowed nearly a decade ago.

“It’s time to talk about TABOR’s binding requirements,” Urschel said, adding that it’s “maybe” time to consider a new version of Ref C.

The politics of that are tricky, especially if Republicans take control of the Senate, the House, the governorship or any combination of the three in the Nov. 4 election.

“This is going to a fun session,” Weil said of 2015, with a hint of irony in her voice.

Forecast notes

The forecasts released Monday touched on three other topics of interest for education funding watchers.

State Education Fund: This dedicated account, used to supplement K-12 spending, is projected to have between $561 million and $672 million in it for spending by the 2015 legislature. The fund contained more than $1 billion last spring, prompting a tug of war between lawmakers who wanted to spend more on schools and others who wanted to save for future rainy days. The rainy day crowd mostly prevailed.

Marijuana revenues: Up to $40 million a year in excise (wholesale) taxes on recreational marijuana is earmarked for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. Prior marijuana revenue forecasts proved way too optimistic, partly because many users so far have chosen to stick with low-tax medical marijuana. The latest legislative forecast puts excise revenues at under $12 million in each of the next two years and at only $12.3 million in 2016-17. (See this story for more background.)

College construction: The higher education lobby’s big spring 2014 gamble paid off. Scrambling to find campus construction money, higher ed helped push through a bill that earmarked some surplus 2013-14 revenues for buildings – if that surplus materialized. It did, and nine of the 10 projects on the priority list got their money on Sept. 15. The 10th is expected to get its cash near the end of the year after the state’s 2013-14 books are finally closed. The list of 10 includes a few non-campus projects. The higher ed projects are at the Auraria Higher Education Center, CSU-Fort Collins, CU-Boulder, Fort Lewis College and Adams, Colorado Mesa and Western Colorado state universities.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.

 

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.