How to ask for a billion dollars

DENVER — Colorado Senator Mike Johnston, a former high school teacher and principal, spearheaded the effort. It took 2 years, 250 public meetings and it involved 2,000 individual stakeholders. The result is a bill that would rewrite the formula for funding state K-12 public education in a way that boosts the education budget and makes spending more accountable and more effective.

Although the bill passed this spring — on a party-line vote — the real political battle has yet to begin. That’s because none of the measures in the bill will take effect unless voters approve a $1 billion tax hike this November, which will appear statewide on election ballots as Amendment 66.

At this point, the election is weeks away, and Coloradans famously averse to tax hikes of any kind for any reason might expect to be hit with a deluge of broadcast ads and mailers about the amendment and what it will do and what it asks of them. There’s none of that yet.

In an August interview with the Independent, Johnston didn’t seem concerned. On the contrary, he was optimistic about the campaign planned to promote the amendment, which is being run by an issue committee called Colorado Commits to Kids.

“It will be the largest, best-organized, best-funded state issue campaign ever run,” he told the Independent. “We’ll raise $6 million. We’ll have grassroots folks and education leaders on our team. It will be the most important educational issue in the country this fall. We’ve built a dream team of sorts. The Governor has been out publicly supporting us. We have the best possible chance to win.”

Waiting for go

In its September 16 disclosure forms, filed just weeks before clerks begin mailing ballots to voters, Commits to Kids reported just over $3 million in donations.

But political insiders say the campaign has something like $10 million to $20 million “lined up” and is holding the funds and avoiding the noise disclosing that amount of money could generate while quietly building an Obama-style ground-game to win over voters and make sure they cast ballots.

According to the disclosure forms, Commits to Kids has paid more than a million dollars to Fieldworks, a Washington D.C.-based canvassing firm with clients such as the ACLU, EMILY’s List, labor unions and a dozen or so state Democratic parties.

“They’re trying to compress the campaign based on the expectation that they’re going to have the advantage in terms of resources,” said Eric Anderson of the Denver-based public issue communications firm SE2, the PR shop that helped pass the first statewide tax increase (2004, on tobacco) after TABOR was passed.

“By compressing the campaign,” Anderson said, “they can potentially control the dialogue and get more of a one-sided debate.”

A clear Commits to Kids strategy so far is to try and deflate Colorado’s knee-jerk opposition to tax increases by being upfront about how much they’re asking for, which is technically $950 million, but even the campaign has tossed around the “almost $1 billion” language. The group has launched a slick website explaining the proposed reforms and that hosts a tax calculator that constituents can use to find out exactly how much the reforms would cost them personally.

Amendment 66 would bump up current income tax rates from 4.63 percent to 5 percent for people making under $75,000 per year. It would raise rates to 5.9 percent on incomes greater than $75,000. If you make $30,000, your taxes would jump about $50 a year. If you make $200,000, they’d go up by nearly $1,200.

A budget in a corset

Coloradans enjoy low tax rates, and the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights passed in 1992 ensures that voters must approve any tax increase. In the last two decades, the cost of living and the state population have jumped higher than have tax revenues. As a result, Colorado has seen a steady stream of public-service cutbacks. Lawmakers looking to balance the budget every year regularly raid education funding.

Many analysts agree with University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Affairs Dean Paul Teske, who believes that, given the context, the proposed $1 billion tax hike is actually on the low side of what state education needs. He says Colorado falls either 40th or 42nd among the states in per-pupil funding depending on the evaluating standards.

“We tend to be about $1,500 per kid below the national average,” he said.

A district court hearing arguments in the recently concluded Lobato case — which pitted families of public school students against the state — found that the school system is chronically underfunded by as much as $4 billion annually.

That’s a lot of money. Just $1 billion is a lot to ask for, says Johnston.

“If we’re going to ask for the investment, we need to know exactly what the return on that investment is — and we’ll be the first state in the country to track expenditures in this way,” he said, underlining that the bill will track all school spending online.

“We started this by re-appropriating more than $1 billion in current expenditures. We looked at every dollar and cut out where we weren’t getting the most bang for buck,” he said.

Tug of war

Some of those cuts will impact wealthier school districts in areas like Aspen, which has benefited from a formula that took into account local cost of living. It meant that wealthy districts like Aspen were receiving far larger percentages of special funding, than say, schools with a high percentage of at-risk students.

The new formula does away with the cost-of-living weight, relying on local districts to raise funds to pay teachers higher salaries where it’s expensive to live. That former cost-of-living money is combined with the new tax revenue to raise per-pupil funding across the state and to boost funding for English-language learners, at-risk students and students in small, rural districts.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone believes that kind of distribution is the fairest distribution.

“Of the $950 million [tax] increase, about 40 percent goes to 7 districts and 10 percent goes to Denver Public Schools, where Johnston is from,” said Keith King, a former state lawmaker from Colorado Springs who has spent much of his career opening charter schools in the state. “Johnston wrote the bill to help the funding of his schools.”

King says the new formula sacrifices the needs of the vast majority of students to the needs of English-language learners and students who are struggling at school for reasons often tied to health and family economics.

“The act is not based upon the needs of the kids. It’s based upon the two proxies that do not have a bearing for most kids in Colorado,” he said.

Supporters of the reform have argued that the point is not to make the spending equal but to make it equitable. They say concentrating attention where it’s most needed is a way to make spending most effective if the goal is to raise learning levels for the greatest number of students.

To many opponents of the reform, that line of logic and the graduated tax proposal smack of special interests and class warfare.

Not Colorado, lots Hickenlooper

“If you are trying to defeat an initiative there are four vital messages,” says Rick Ridder, a principal with RBI strategists and an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel school. “It goes too far, it costs too much, it’s deceptive and it’s not ‘Colorado’ — or something to that effect.”

Ridder noted that so far no specific issue campaign has formed a funded “No on 66” effort, but main opponents of the tax are employing the kind of messaging he outlined. They say the reform is too expensive, that it won’t deliver on its promises and seems more like an idea imported from the coasts than one homegrown in Colorado.

“It’s been flying below the radar for most Coloradans, but Amendment 66, a nearly $1 billion-per-year tax hike backed by Gov. Hickenlooper and a host of liberal special interest groups, including teacher unions, will be on the ballot this fall, whether you like it or not,” Americans For Prosperity posted on its Facebook wall. The rough and tumble free-market group is funded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers. The local chapter dives head first into Colorado politics, helping shape debate on the right.

In this case, the group’s priority seems less about undercutting Amendment 66 and more about tying the initiative to Hickenlooper, a Democrat up for reëlection next year. AFP has drafted a petition opposing “Governor Hickenlooper’s billion dollar tax plan,” promoted a #hickhike Twitter meme and released the following YouTube ad:

However it may ultimately translate for Hickenlooper, Ridder is sideline optimistic about Commits to Kids’ chances of success.

“They’re being very strategic,” he said. “Voters are paying attention to all sorts of things and barely know there’s a November election. You want to start communicating when voters are ready to pay attention.

“The best way to say it is: You don’t pick cherries until they’re ripe.”

[ Image: Clinton Phillips ]


  1. Just a quick correction, Paul Teske is the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, not DU.

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