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Education Funding Initiative Seeks A Spot On The Ballot

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A roughly billion-dollar tax increase is likely to go before voters this fall. It’s part of a larger package of education reform that state lawmakers passed last session.

Senator Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) is helping to spearhead the latest initiative. He also took the lead two years ago on an unsuccessful education tax increase to raise several billion dollars for K through 12 schools and higher education.

“I felt strongly at the time that we were funding education at such a low level that voters would understand,” said Heath.

Voters didn’t share Heath’s perspective and the measure overwhelmingly failed at the ballot box.

"This would make a big dent in the deep hole we've dug in Colorado for our students, but it certainly doesn't bring us out of the hole."

“They wanted more accountability,” said Heath. “How the money was going to be spent, how it was going to be used.”

The latest initiative aims to combine additional funding with education reforms. It would put in place a two-tiered income tax increase and the money would go into full day kindergarten, preschool, special education programs and give districts extra cash for at risk students.

“This would make a big dent in the deep hole we’ve dug in Colorado for our students, but it certainly doesn’t bring us out of the hole,” said Liane Morrison, head of the education advocacy nonprofit Great Education Colorado.

Great Education Colorado is helping to gather signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.

Morrison says passage isn’t a slam-dunk and notes that a lot of voters may not have a strong connection to schools. She remains optimistic because the coalition is much broader than two years ago and she thinks they have a winning issue.

“There’s a value in the voters that says we want to make it better for the next generation,” said Morrison. “And we certainly don’t want those kids to enter college or the workforce with less opportunity than we did.”

"I would be one of this proposal's biggest supporters if I believed for a moment the funds would really improve the quality of education for our kids ... I don't."

Support at the state house is mixed. The underlying legislation passed the state Legislature with no Republican votes. It’s also a topic being used in a highly contentious campaign to recall two Democratic state senators.

“A significant tax increase when Coloradans can least afford it. This is the worst recession since the Great Depression,” said Jennifer Kerns, the spokeswoman for the campaign to oust Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs).

Under the proposal the average family would an additional $250 each year in income taxes. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo attacked Governor John Hickenlooper for his support. Tancredo has announced his candidacy for the governorship and is challenging Hickenlooper to a series of debates.

“I would be one of this proposal’s biggest supporters if I believed for a moment the funds would really improve the quality of education for our kids,” said Tancredo. “I don’t.”

Governor Hickenlooper says he thinks the plan could make Colorado number one in the country for high quality public education.

“You talk about attracting businesses. This is the kind of thing of opportunity that I think can be a significant game changer,” said Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper didn’t take a stance on an education tax increase two years ago, saying voters didn’t have the appetite for it. Now he says raising taxes won’t hurt Colorado’s economy.

“This is clearly a tax increase. Accept that. It’s never an easy thing," said Hickenlooper. "Even if it passes, our top income tax rate is still going to be less than some of our toughest competitors, places like Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon. So I don’t think it’s going in any way to hurt our competitiveness.”

The statewide campaign won’t ramp up until this fall, providing the measure officially makes it on the election ballot.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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