Colorado voters reject billion-dollar education tax proposal
Proponents vow to start work all over again to address state’s widening education budget shortfall
DENVER — Frustrating, heartbreaking, disappointing, even devastating — words heard all over the hotel ballroom here where supporters of Amendment 66 gathered to watch the votes come in. What no one said aloud, but what was smuggled into the phrase “we came up short,” was the question How did it go so terribly wrong?
Colorado Commits to Kids, the $10 million-plus campaign to raise money to overhaul the state’s K-12 funding reform, was always framed as a challenge. But as the best-funded statewide issue campaign in Colorado history, proponents thought they had a fighting chance. They never expected to lose by a margin of nearly 2 to1.
“It’s a shock,” said Senator Mike Johnston of Tuesday’s trouncing. A former principal in a financially ailing Adams County school district, Johnston has been the reform effort’s figurehead since stakeholders began writing the first versions of the new school budget legislation two years ago.
“The hard part about this is you can’t take your ball and go home,” he said. “There’s no walking away and saying ‘I’m mad. I’m frustrated, so we’re going to give up.’ That would just leave 859,000 kids without an advocate.”
Supporters of the movement to infuse almost $1 billion annually into Colorado schools, and to distribute those funds more more equitably, had been hearing bad news from the exit polls all day. Not long after polling places opened, it became clear that turnout among base supporters wasn’t high enough to bring off a win.
“Barring some last minute surge at the polls, it looks like this effort will come up short,” Yes on 66 spokesman Curtis Hubbard said mid-morning Tuesday.
With 91 percent of the votes counted, the measure’s 66 percent to 34 percent loss neatly fits into a long history of resounding ‘No’s’ from Colorado voters on raising taxes to fund education.
However unlikely victory seemed as the day progressed, the Colorado Commits to Kids campaign was visibly shaken, even mystified by the depth of defeat.
“Everything about this campaign was different: the support, the policy, the reform, the funding mechanism. Proposals in the past have just asked for more money for the old system; this asked for money for a new vision,” said Johnston. “I don’t know yet why it didn’t work.”
Part of the explanation lies in the wording of the ballot issue. Under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) Amendment, the description of the measure for voters leads by saying it would be a $951 million price tag before explaining to voters what that money would buy. That kind of sticker shock is a high hurdle to clear.
“Looks like a pretty major red flag to me,” said Tia Medina, a first-time Denver voter who filled out her ballot during her lunch hour at a downtown Chipotle Tuesday.
Another impediment to the campaign’s success were unfounded claims by opponents that much of the $951 million would go toward shoring up pensions managed by the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA). No matter how many fact sheets and email blasts the campaign wrote to set the record straight, the disinformation took hold among voters.
“Look, I’m from a long line of union people. But I also have to kids to feed and put through college. A billion dollar tax hike for pension plans doesn’t sit so well in my mind,” said Chaz Jordan, who cast his ballot weeks ago and spent his lunch hour Tuesday with a burrito in one hand and his smartphone in the other tuned into anti-66 radio chatter.
The $10.29 million that Colorado Commits to Kids reported raised by Friday went to a highly targeted but generally low-profile campaign effort that lacked the energy and buzz of the successful Referenda C and D campaigns in 2005. That year, in narrowly approving Referendum C, voters agreed to give up $3.7 billion in tax refunds to relieve Colorado from some of the tightest state spending limits in the nation. Voters narrowly rejected Referendum D, a proposal to let the state borrow $2.1 billion to repair school buildings, fix roads and infuse money into police and firefighters’ unpaid pensions.
Refs C and D were championed by then-Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who risked his reputation as a fiscal conservative pushing for the measures.
This year’s Amendment 66 campaign was supported – but with less vigor – by the governor’s office, now occupied by John Hickenlooper, a Democrat seeking re-election next year.
“Perhaps this wasn’t the right transaction, but no one fought against the vision,” Hickenlooper said of Tuesday’s outcome. “Every great social victory in the history of this country is based on a number of failures…. Always there were setbacks before we got to that ultimate success.”
The failure of Amendment 66 leaves Colorado’s education funding formula looking a lot like it did when it was last overhauled in 1994. Except not really, because a lot has changed in Colorado in the last 19 years.
The number of English-language-learning students jumped to 14 percent, creating new demands in schools across the state. Funding has drained from rural schools as local populations waned and an outdated formula intended to account for cost of living bit into districts inhabited by the rural poor.
Then the economy tanked in 2009, depleting the state general fund and forcing a $1 billion cut to education. The National Education Association reports that teacher salaries since then have dropped 5 percent statewide, and Colorado, with roughly 18 students per educator, is now among the top ten highest student-to-teacher ratio states. What’s more, teachers and districts now face a series of essentially unfunded mandates that A66 was intended to ease. They include evaluating teachers annually instead of every three years and revamping standardized testing for students.
“There’s a whole lot of new things districts and schools are being asked to do, and if they don’t have that money, it’s going to be really hard,” said Paul Teske, an education economist at the University of Colorado, Denver.
Ben DeGraw, an education policy analyst at the free-market Independence Institute, which led opposition to Amendment 66, countered that the previous reforms the amendment would have subsidized aren’t entirely unfunded.
“There’s $1.6 billion in the state education fund and the Governor’s already proposed raising per pupil funding by $125,” said DeGraw, “So there should, at least for the next year, be money to implement [the evaluations].”
Despite raising 33 times more money than the $300,000 raised by the Kids are First opposition campaign, Colorado Commits to Kids failed to win the ground game. and get out the vote
“The complexity of the issue may have contributed to some people not voting for it,” said DeGraw, citing a recent AP article that said “Amendment 66 is so complicated, that it’s hard to find a voter who understand it.’
What DeGraw thinks voters did understand was the overall cost of the measure and the fact that it would have rerouted extra funding to schools with high populations of at-risk and English-language-learning students.
“It will be interesting to see how the messaging plays out in suburban areas, with dollars being redistributed from Jefferson and Douglas counties to urban and rural areas,” he said.
The urban vs. rural divide was one of the central messages of much of the A66 opposition. The misperception that A66 would have diverted money from rural districts to urban ones in metro Denver played thoroughly into concerns that already had prompted 11 rural counties to vote this election on whether to secede from the state. The fact that the assertion was essentially not true never really got through. In fact, at least one rural news outlet, KKCO in Grand Junction, misreported by tens of thousands of dollars the impact A66 would have on nearby districts. The story was shared around the conservative media sphere and the station never wrote a correction.
“What was so ironic to me was that districts that would have benefited the most, the lowest-property wealth districts, the rural districts, were not all that supportive,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia. “We’ve got to make sure they understand not all urban folks are trying to work against rural interests. Our interests are entwined. We’re all Coloradans.”
“This would have been the best windfall for rural districts of any school finance act ever written,” Johnston added.
Charles Brown of the Colorado Futures Center, a department at Colorado State University that tracks the Colorado state budget, made news two years ago with dire predictions about Colorado’s general fund, which pays for schools. His study found that the fund would grow by just 86 percent while the cost of education would increase by 118 percent.
Even if Amendment 66 had passed, Brown adds, it was a baby step that wouldn’t have touched the overall 20 percent gap separating the state’s revenues and expenditures that Coloradans may face if both taxes and budgets aren’t reformed by 2025. The broader puzzle of the state’s fiscal constraints — sometimes referred to as Colorado’s Gordian knot — would not have been solved by Amendment 66, he said.
Brown took a gentle stab at the assertion that Colorado families couldn’t afford the measure.
“In the short run, of course it would be an economic hit because you’re taking money out of household spending to use on taxes, so you’re not seeing the gains from that spending. The positive benefits show up years later, so you have to look at the economics of this on a couple decades timeline,” he said.
Brown added that long-term economic predictions made by several policy centers and CSU’s own economics department were mixed about how Amendment 66 would have affected the economy of Colorado.
“I don’t see 66 as a huge economic stimulator if it passes or a problem if it doesn’t,” Brown said before ballots were counted Tuesday. “The real focus is on restructuring education” and not stimulating the economy.
Johnston pledged in his coalition’s concession speech to stay focused on education reform. He was down, nearly tearful, but resolute about re-addressing the issue in a way voters will support. School funding – both for K-12 and higher education — will top the agenda for state lawmakers in the 2014 session. Hickenlooper also reaffirmed his commitment to the finance overhaul.
“We are recognizing that this model is an unbelievable starting place…. for the most integrated and comprehensive reform model in the United States,” the Governor said.
“The good news is that opponents and supporters all want the same thing: a great education for their kids,” Johnston added. “What we disagreed about was how to pay for it.”
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