Benefield looking to ask voters to approve tax hike for schools

DENVER– An official snow day at the capitol Wednesday didn’t stop education advocates from filing into the West Foyer where lawmakers unveiled a desperate plan to raise taxes to shore up the state’s struggling education system. The upbeat note struck by the speakers, though, mostly succeeded at conjuring images of the wide stormy seas they are setting out to sail. Captained by state Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, the group is asking voters in a recession to amend the constitution to lift tax limits set by Colorado’s revered Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

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Benefield’s legislation would allow legislators to increase taxes and fees without asking voters’ permission in order to pay for primary school through university. School funding is in a desperate situation, said the speakers here today, echoing sentiments shared widely by analysts and administrators all across the state.

“We can’t even talk about full day kindergarten and preschool programs,” Benefield told the Colorado Independent. “We haven’t even seen the price tag for those kinds of programs. We can’t even have those conversations in this building. If you can’t even talk about where revenue might come from, all conversation is ‘dead on arrival.'”

Last week the House passed legislation that would see roughly $250 million cut from state education programs. In many districts, the cuts will mean increased class size, the end of alternative-education programs, and elimination of faculty positions. The 6 percent to 8 percent cuts to districts will result in the loss of 180 positions in Adams County alone, including 24 high school teachers, for example, according to Rep. Judy Salano, D- Thornton.

Democrats Joe Rice, Littleton, Mike Merrifield, Colorado Springs, Max Tyler, Lakewood, Randy Fischer, Fort Collins, and members of Great Futures Colorado Campaign, stood behind Benefield and Salano as they made the case that Colorado voters should have the opportunity to purchase a better future for their children.

“At some point the general public has to understand that there has to be more revenue to educate kids,” Salano said.

The lawmakers are writing a referendum because voters would have to approve the change. The initiative would have no effect on this year’s budget but it would loosen spending restrictions in the future by placing education funding outside the state’s general fund, which is proscribed by TABOR.

Colorado’s average spending per pupil has consistently dropped since the implementation of the restrictive Gallagher Amendment in the early 1980s. At the time it was put in place, the state paid out $190 more per pupil than the national average. In the decades since, spending per pupil has dropped to $1,397 below the national average, according to Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education Colorado.

Benefield said she didn’t know specifically how much money taxpayers would be asked to give if her referendum were approved. She said implementing the ballot measure would be the first part of that conversation. She said she would need 44 Representatives and 24 Senators to agree to the measure and said that at this point the effort is “grass roots” and does not have the full support of the either chamber’s leadership.

“After I get the votes we will have a broader discussion,” Benefield said.   

Increases would likely come through property taxes. Benefiled said that property taxes are generally supposed to float up and down with the economy but the Gallagher Amendment prevents that kind of movement.

“So that is one option allow property taxes to float again,” she said.

Even in a state where taxes do not appear overly burdensome to many, it is likely voters coming out of a major recession will not look kindly on the proposed tax increases.

Still, Weil at least was optimistic.

“There is definitely a tradition to have a say in the size of government in Colorado. But there is a second tradition in Colorado, and that is funding our schools.”

Asked why Colorado voters should support the referendum if it reaches the ballot, Rice said simply, “Because it is the right thing to do.”

Edit Note: The original listed Rep. Jim Riesberg among the attendees at the west foyer presentation. He was not there.

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