Littwin: No new taxes! And no other plan.
The postmortems are in on the epic failure that was Amendment 66, and they usually go something like this:
Colorado is not the blue state people think it is. Although it may be socially liberal, it remains fiscally conservative. And the voters, by an overwhelming margin, were unconvinced that the proposed $1 billion annual tax hike for K-12 education would be spent either wisely or constructively.
Hence, the devastation.
But here’s the funny thing: Even though the post-game analysis is largely correct, it’s also largely off point.
Yes, Colorado is still a purplish state, if swinging blueish. Yes, the state is fiscally conservative. Yes, despite the $10 million spent in favor of 66, the voters rejected the invitation to tax themselves.
The reason, though, is simple. It’s TABOR. It begins with TABOR. It ends with TABOR.
When Colorado was a more conservative state, it rejected income tax hikes that, because of TABOR rules, citizens must vote on. When Colorado became a more liberal state, it still rejected income tax hikes that, because of TABOR rules, citizens must vote on. Since TABOR, Colorado has never voted for an income tax hike.
I doubt this has much to do with Colorado politics one way or the other. Other states don’t have to vote on tax hikes. Their legislatures do it. The legislators vote on a tax hike, and they sweeten it by adding something here and subtracting something there and doing the work that legislators do. If other states were given the same choice that TABOR affords Colorado voters, would they vote to tax themselves? Maybe some would. I’m guessing most — blue or red or any other color — would not.
This is being painted as a huge defeat for John Hickenlooper, which it is. But the real failure was in ever thinking that it could pass, particularly without bipartisan backing, particularly in a difficult economy. Hick and the Democrats were, well, schooled. A 30-point defeat will do that.
When I suggested the other day that the vote against 66 was a disaster for the state — for what the loss meant for education, for what it meant for the difficulties in state funding — I got lots of advice from readers on why I was wrong.
They voted against 66 because the teachers’ unions were for it.
They voted against 66 because it would institutionalize charter schools.
They voted against 66 because it didn’t guarantee how the money would be spent.
They voted against 66 because it was offered as an amendment.
They voted against 66 because throwing money at education doesn’t work.
They voted against 66 because of the “K-12 education industry” and, of course, PERA.
This is the genius of TABOR — evil genius, but genius nonetheless. Amendment 66 was certainly flawed because it was based on Senate Bill 213, which was certainly flawed because all bills are flawed. They’re flawed in that they’re generally written with the need for compromise in mind, and then, when it comes to getting the vote, they’re further compromised. The end product is often an outrage. Amendment 66 wasn’t an outrage. It was a failed attempt to make up for affluent Colorado’s unwillingness to sufficiently fund education. It tried to be too many things to too many people. There really wasn’t any other way to do it.
This could have been a do-over. But we don’t seem to do tax do-overs. In 2008 and 2011 and 2013, Colorado voted against education taxes. Were all the propositions equally bad, equally vague, equally wrong-headed? Even if you went to an underfunded school, you know the answer.
We’re stuck with our Gordian knot. I love the Greek myths, but the current-day myth that you don’t need money to fix educational shortfalls is all American.
Over most of the last two decades, we’ve been arguing about school testing and whether there’s too much emphasis on the tests as a measure of school effectiveness. Whether or not you agree that testing is essential, we can all agree that the point of it is diagnostic. At this point, we’ve had the diagnosis. We know, as if we didn’t know before, where the weaknesses rest. We know who’s learning and who’s not. And we have some idea why.
But if we’re not going to fund the issues that seem clear from the diagnosis – the importance of preschool education for disadvantaged kids, the importance of all-day kindergarten, the importance of schools five days in a week in districts that have had to cut back to four — what was the point of all the diagnosis?
That’s the question I have about 66: What proposal could have passed? The legislature will almost certainly try to do something in the coming session to make up for 66’s failure. And whatever gets passed, it almost certainly won’t be enough. And I’m still waiting to hear what exactly can be done about it.
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