Fri October 28, 2011

Colorado Ballot Measure to Raise Taxes for Schools

Governor Hickenlooper will release his proposed budget early next week and pretty much everyone is expecting more cuts to K through 12 schools.  The first glimpse of the budget will come on the same day that Colorado voters will decide whether to pass Proposition 103, the only statewide issue on the ballot Tuesday. 

That’s why many education leaders are in the midst of a late hour blitz pushing for the passage of Proposition 103. It would temporarily raise state sales and income taxes to help fund schools.  But many Republicans and business leaders – as well as the Governor – argue a down economy is not the time for even a modest tax increase. 


The Impacts of Cuts

Teachers doing more with less, classes getting bigger and bigger, students learning on antiquated computers – words uttered often by teachers and parents testify against budget cuts at the state capitol.

Just up the road in Northglenn, you can see some of these things for yourself in Laura Israelson’s classroom, or, more precisely, the library, since she no longer has a room and instead pushes a cart around the school teaching both fourth grade and a tech class called 21st Century Learning.

"It’s getting kind of silly as far as a work-place environment," Israelson says. "Remember a teacher’s workplace is a student’s learning place so the more difficult we make it for teachers, the worse it is for kids too."

Last year due to budget cuts, Israelson lost her old job as a teacher-librarian and tech specialist. But here at Hulstrom Options K-8, administrators were able to keep her on by combining two positions.

For Israelson, that’s meant a job she doesn’t take for granted.  But it’s also meant class sizes that now average about 30 kids. 

"It’s been very sad for kids," Israelson says.

Poorer districts like Adams 12 have been hit especially hard in this economy, because unlike schools in more affluent areas, they can’t rely as much on local property taxes or mills to offset state funding cuts.  Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers and the governor approved more than $200 million in K-12 cuts. 

State Senator Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) was one of the most outspoken against them.

"We’ve got schools where basically kids and parents are paying for everything," Heath says. " Riding school busses, playing sports, doing AP classes, arts classes and band, parents are paying a lot more than this tax increase right now in fees."

Heath's proposed tax increase would raise the state’s income tax by four-tenths of a percent and its sales tax by a tenth of a percent for the next five years, or restore the taxes to the levels they were at until 1999 when lawmakers lowered them. Heath estimates the change would bring in about $500 million a year for schools. 

Tax Increase Fought

But critics like Barry Paulson  question that math.  A retired University of Colorado economics professor and now senior fellow at the Libertarian think tank, the Independence Institute, he says there's no guarantee that the measure will even raise more money for schools.

"When you increase the income tax on individuals, they have less incentive to work and save and invest and engage in productive activity," Paulson says.

Business-friendly Republican lawmakers have echoed as much, saying a poor economy is not the time to raise taxes. 

"People are strapped right now, and we cannot afford three billion dollars taken out of the private sector and moved into government," said former GOP state representative Victor Mitchell. "We just can’t afford it and there’s a cost to that and that cost will be even more lost jobs." 

Mitchell is leading up the campaign against Prop 103.

Push for Tax Overhaul

Debate around Prop 103 has pretty much mirrored the classic tax hike versus tax cut storyline.  But it’s also raised a broader question.  And that’s whether or not a complete overhaul of the state’s complex and sometimes contradictory tax code ought to occur.  State government simply isn’t bringing in enough money to provide the services it currently needs to, says policy analyst Mark Neuman-Lee.

"It’s a large problem that’s faced Colorado for many years, and this will take a big, broad solution," says  Neuman-Lee, of the left-leaning Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.

But proponents of this say that could take several years, which is why Neuman-Lee's group has come out in favor of Prop 103, which it calls a stop-gap measure. 

"There’s no solution on the horizon," Neuman-Lee says. "But in the meantime we’ve been cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from K-12 and higher education."

Not surprisingly, anti-tax advocates see it differently.

"Despite the fact that we’re throwing more money at education and we’re spending per student about average compared to the rest of the country, productivity in terms of student performance has not improved," says Barry Paulson of the Independence Institute.

Paulson says the state already has Amendment 23 which requires public school funding to increase yearly with some caveats. The act has long been seen as an antagonism to the controversial TABOR, or Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights law, which limits government growth. 

Governor John Hickenlooper along with a growing number of political moderates have themselves hinted at the need for bigger tax reform.  The Governor himself has stayed out of the Prop 103 debate, saying only that Coloradans don’t have an appetite for a tax increase this year.

Layoffs Predicted

Back at Hulstrom in Northglenn, Principal Steven Isenhour agrees this may not be a good year for a tax question on the ballot, as he says he’s not seeing as much momentum for Prop 103 as its backers have been portraying lately. 

"I would hope more would build up," Isenhour says.  "I’m a very strong Republican, but we need to have something change, whether it’s raise taxes or do something to keep the funding for public entities, or it is going to get pretty ugly."

If the measure doesn’t pass, Isenhour expects he’ll be forced to lay-off staff at Hulstrom.  That means even bigger classes, and in his mind less chances for young people to learn and be prepared to compete in the global economy. 

Colorado voters have the final say on Prop 103, Tuesday.