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.

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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.

School Finance

Facing tax opposition, Indianapolis leaders may settle for less than schools need

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One day before the Indianapolis Public Schools Board is expected to approve a ballot measure to ask taxpayers for more funding, district officials appealed to a small group of community members for support.

Fewer than 40 people, including district staff, gathered Monday night at the New Era Church to hear from leaders about the need for more school funding. School board members plan to vote Tuesday on whether to ask voters to approve a tax hike to fund operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, in the November election. But just how much money they will seek is unknown.

The crowd at New Era was largely supportive of plans to raise more money for district schools, and at moments people appeared wistful that the district had abandoned an early plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, which one person described as a “dream.”

Martha Malinski, a parent at School 91 and a recent transplant from Minneapolis, said the city appears to have a “lack of investment” in education.

“Is the money that you are asking for enough?” she asked.

Whatever amount the district eventually seeks is likely to be dramatically scaled down from the first proposal. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has spent more than seven months grappling with the reality that many Indianapolis political leaders and taxpayers don’t have the stomach for the tax increase the district initially sought.

“We are trying to balance what’s too much in terms of tax burden with the need for our students,” said Ferebee, who also raised the possibility that the district might return to taxpayers for more money if the first referendum does not raise enough. “If we don’t invest in our young people now, what are the consequences and what do we have to pay later?”

After withdrawing their initial plan to seek nearly $1 billion over eight years, district officials spent months working with the Indy Chamber to analyze Indianapolis Public Schools finances and find areas to trim in an effort to reduce the potential tax increase. But the district and chamber are at odds over how aggressive the cuts should be.

Last week, the chamber released a voluminous list of cuts the group says could save the school system $477 million over eight years. They include reducing the number of teachers, eliminating busing for high schoolers, and closing schools. The chamber has paired those cuts with a proposal for a referendum to increase school funding by $100 million, which it says could raise teacher salaries by 16 percent.

District officials, however, say the timeline for the cuts proposed by the chamber is not realistic. The analysis mostly includes strategies suggested by the district, said Ferebee. But steps like redistricting and closing schools, for example, can take many months.

“Where we are apart is the pace, the cadence and how aggressive the approach is with realizing those savings,” he said.

Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of the administration. Tim Stark, a teacher from George Washington High School, asked the superintendent not to work with charter high school partners until the district’s traditional high schools are fully enrolled. But Stark said he is still supportive of increasing funding for the district. “It is really important for IPS to get the funds,” he said.

The chamber has no explicit authority over the tax increase but it has the political sway to play an influential role in whether it passes. As a result, Indianapolis Public Schools officials are working to come to an agreement that will get that chamber’s support.

A separate measure to fund building improvements was announced by the district in June and incorporated into the chamber plan. That tax increase would raise $52 million for building improvements, primarily focused on safety. That’s about one-quarter of the initial proposal.

finish line

A $1.6 billion tax increase for Colorado education just got a lot closer to the ballot

Joi Lin, a Boulder Valley Education Association employee, checks notary pages on petitions for Great Schools, Thriving communities. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Supporters of more funding for Colorado schools turned in more than 170,000 signatures Wednesday to place a $1.6 billion tax measure on the November ballot.

If approved, the measure would increase the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate on individuals earning $150,000 or more, with the additional revenue going to increase base per-student funding, to pay for full-day kindergarten, and to put more money toward students with special needs, such as those learning English, those with disabilities, and those who are gifted and talented.

Organizers said volunteers collected more than 111,000 signatures, with paid canvassers collecting the rest to build up a substantial cushion and make approval more certain.  The measure needs 98,492 valid signatures to get in front of voters. Inevitably, some signatures are rejected for a variety of reasons. The day before the Wednesday deadline, volunteers were going over petition packets a third time to check for mistakes before turning them in.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office still needs to verify the signatures. Under tougher requirements approved in 2016, those signatures need to represent 2 percent of the registered voters in each of the state’s 35 senate districts – and to pass, the measure will need support from 55 percent of voters.

Getting that support will be no easy task, considering that the last attempt to raise taxes for schools, Amendment 66 in 2013, was defeated 2 to 1. Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires all tax increases to be approved by voters, and they’ve been loathe to approve statewide taxes for any cause, even as local school districts have been more successful.

Cathy Kipp, a school board member from the Fort Collins-based Poudre district, personally collected more than 4,000 signatures around the state, and she said she was pleased to see support from ordinary people even in many conservative communities. That decisions about how to spend the money would be made locally is key to winning over voters, she said.

“The money will be spent however the local school district wants to spend it,” she said. “I knew teachers last time who didn’t want to vote for (Amendment 66) because it was so proscriptive.”

Kipp said Poudre likely would use the money to improve mental health services for students and raise teacher salaries.

Supporters believe the more challenging petition process, which required them to fan out across the state, will ultimately be to their advantage in the campaign to come.

“We have education supporters having conversations around the state about what additional revenue could mean for them,” said Susan Meek, a spokeswoman for Great Education Colorado, a key organization backing the tax increase. “The money will be spent locally. Every school district can go out and say what it would mean for them. Perhaps it is vocational-technical education. Perhaps it’s having school five days a week. Perhaps it is having a counselor in every school.”

And to make the case that a statewide tax on businesses and those with higher incomes is a better way to raise money than local taxes, supporters have broken down how much money each district would get and how large a property tax increase it would take to raise that money locally. Often, it’s a very big number.

Colorado ranks 28th among the states in per-student funding, according to the most recent report from the National Education Association, which includes local, state, and federal funding in its comparison. However, Colorado spends much less than other states of comparable wealth and generally gets poor marks for equity. School districts vary enormously in how much they spend on each student, and half the districts in the state are operating on four-day weeks because they can’t afford to be open more than that.

Since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion that would have gone to K-12 education under a constitutionally mandated formula. The 2018-19 state budget includes a 6.95 percent increase for education, roughly $475 more per student, but supporters of more money for schools say that the increase doesn’t begin to address years of underfunding.

“It’s hard for people to understand how you can have one of the fastest growing economies in the nation and can’t fund schools at the level you did before the Great Recession,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, another backer of the initiative.

The only way to really address the issue is a major source of new revenue, they say. And that’s what Initiative 93 would provide.

The tax measure calls for:

  • Raising the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent.
  • Raising the income tax rate from a flat 4.63 percent to between 5 percent and 8.25 percent for people earning more than $150,000. The highest tax rate would be paid by people earning $500,000 or more.
  • Setting the residential property assessment rate at 7 percent for schools. That’s lower than it is now but higher than it is predicted to be in 2019 because current law has the unintended effect of gradually reducing the residential assessment rate.
  • Setting the non-residential property assessment rate at 24 percent, less than the current 29 percent.

According to a fiscal analysis by the state, the average taxpayer earning more than $150,000 would pay an additional $519 a year, while those earning less would be unaffected. The average corporate taxpayer would pay an additional $11,085 a year. The change in property taxes would vary considerably around the state, but based on the average statewide school levy, many property owners would pay $28 more on each $100,000 of market value in 2019 than they otherwise would. Commercial property owners will see a decrease.

Total property tax revenue collected by school districts is expected to go down statewide, but the measure would partly stabilize property assessments, whose volatility has complicated school finance in Colorado.

A 1982 provision called the Gallagher Amendment sets a formula for the share of property taxes paid by residential and commercial owners, with the effect that skyrocketing values along the Front Range have ratcheted down residential assessment rates across the state. But in poorer rural communities without the tax base of cities like Denver or Boulder, that’s had devastating consequences for school districts, fire districts, and other small taxing entities, even as business owners, ranchers, and farmers have faced a heavier burden.

The state has had to make up much of the difference, and lawmakers are meeting during the off-season to try to come up with a fix. Any change would require voter approval – and could be a tough sell in part because it would be hard to explain.

Initiative 93 only deals with the assessment rate for schools in order to comply with Colorado’s single-subject rule for ballot measures, but it does represent a partial Gallagher fix. This provision was included for several reasons. One, it means that new revenue will actually increase school funding, rather than simply backfilling ever declining local taxes, and two, it provides some tax relief to ranchers and farmers, a selling point in rural communities that have been more reluctant to approve tax increases. And there’s a third argument, that stabilizing property tax revenue will free up more money in the state budget for other needs beyond education.

There are other things that make this effort different from past attempts, supporters say. Amendment 66 was widely perceived as a top-down effort that came from Denver. It raised taxes on everyone, and it made changes to the school finance formula that created winners and losers among districts, making it hard for many school board members and superintendents to support it.

Supporters of Initiative 93 describe it as being built from the ground up over a two-year process that included lots of input from school districts across the state, as well as from advocacy organizations like the NAACP and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. It raises taxes only on businesses and higher-income earners, who represent less than 8 percent of individual income tax returns, and while it encourages the legislature to adopt a new school finance formula, it ensures that every district will see an increase.

Skeptics see just another attempt to throw money at the problem.

“Things are different this time, and it’s that they’re asking for more money,” said Luke Ragland of the conservative education reform group Ready Colorado.

A better approach, Ragland said, would be to tie increased funding to policies that could be expected to improve educational outcomes. There’s no guarantee that this money will make it into the classroom or into teachers’ paychecks, he said.

“There are places in terms of human capital, in terms of attracting talent and keeping it in the classroom, where more money would make a difference, but not just pouring more money into the current system,” he said.

Supporters of the measure will be campaigning in a complicated political environment, possibly sharing the ballot with a major tax increase for transportation, as well as a governor’s race and legislative contests that will determine control of the state Senate, where Republicans currently hold a one-seat majority.

Candidates up and down the ballot likely will be asked to take a position on the ballot measure, layering partisan politics over a measure that supporters hope will have broad appeal.

“You start this analysis with the assumption that it’s an uphill battle because we don’t really pass statewide tax increases, while schools pass lots of local taxes and bond measures,” said political consultant and pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The difference is trust. At the statewide level, people don’t trust that the money will go to benefit their local schools.”

Ciruli sees advantages, though, to asking voters in a mid-term election. Turnout will be higher than in an off-year, when older, more conservative voters tend to dominate, and even-year voters are more likely to have Democratic tendencies and be more open to taxes.

The contentious Democratic primary, which focused on education, also “primed” voters to see low funding as a key problem for schools, he said.

“The environment is pro-education,” Ciruli said. That places the tax measure “in the ballpark, but it’s still a challenge to do a statewide tax increase.”

Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, said the organizations working on the measure decided not to worry too much about “conventional wisdom” and move forward until they saw a compelling reason not to put something on the ballot.

“We’re not naive about the fact that we’re in a political environment, but we’re also creating that political environment,” she said. “Our entire state has a hunger to do right by kids.”