New education coalition hopes for TABOR?opt out

Dream on, says Doug Bruce

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A coalition of Democratic lawmakers and community groups Wednesday announced they would seek a referred measure that would permanently exempt K-12 and higher education from the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.

The coalition, known as Great Futures Colorado, calls the referred measure DECIDE: “Decide Education Cuts or Invest in our Democracy and Economy.” The referred measure will be introduced on March 26, according to its House sponsor, Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada. The concurrent joint resolution will be carried in the Senate by Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora.

Copies of the concurrent joint resolution will not be available until it is introduced. Benefield said the measure asks voters to grant the General Assembly authority to generate additional state revenues for funding preschool through postsecondary public education without prior voter approval and to exempt revenues raised for that purpose from the constitutional limits on fiscal year spending.

DECIDE supporters held a press conference at the state Capitol Wednesday, delayed by a few hours because of the weather. “Snow or no snow, our kids can’t wait!” the coalition said in a press release announcing the delay.

Under the rules of the General Assembly, a referred measure can go to the voters with 44 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. The measure would need at least some Republican support in the House, as few as six members, and votes from at least three Republicans in the Senate.

In a session that has been marked by partisan battles, particularly over anything related to taxes, DECIDE supporters acknowledge the drive for Republican votes will be a challenge. Benefield said she would start with the eight Republicans who on Monday voted against HB 1369, the school finance act. HB 1369 would cut $365 million from state expenditures for K-12 education, and about $260 million below the appropriation in 2009-10. According to the fiscal note, if signed by the governor, each school district would lose 6.35 percent of their state total program funding.

The coalition is made up of the Associated Students of Colorado (college and universities), the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Great Education Colorado, several PTA organizations, community organizations and several religious groups. It notably does not include the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, or any representation from higher education faculty or governing boards. When asked about that, Benefield and other supporters said that is because the drive is a “grassroots effort.” Andrew Bateman, chairman of the Associated Students of Colorado, said they had not yet shared this information with governing boards or other higher ed groups. “They’re busy talking about how to keep their doors open,” he told The Statesman. However, he believed once higher ed officials and groups heard about it, they would be supportive.

“Inaction is no longer an option,” said Denver City Councilwoman Carol Boigan, chair of Great Education Colorado. “This is an economic and moral issue. It’s time to take a good look and be realistic about what we want for the 21st century,” she said.

Several supporters said that without change, the next decade could become known as the “lost decade.” Kristi Hargrove of Crested Butte, an anti-TABOR activist and board member of Colorado PTA, said unless something is done there could a “lost generation of unfulfilled promises.” Hargrove said she is a fiscally conservative Republican, but there are things “we have to be about” and education is one of them. “It shouldn’t be about politics,” she said, adding that she hopes Coloradans will educate themselves about what they see on the ballot in November, and understand the consequences of voting against the measure.

“Are we as a state ready to invest in great education?” asked Ricardo Martinez of Padres Unidos.

The group’s Web site, greatfuturescolorado.org, includes an interactive map that shows how the budget cuts are affecting school districts and public colleges and universities.

A frequently-asked-questions handout warned that without action, school districts, colleges and universities will have to make more painful cuts. Class sizes will grow to unmanageable levels; colleges may close or lose their accreditation, and teachers and professors will leave the state.

Benefield argued that the measure would not be a tax increase, despite wording in the resolution that calls for raising revenues. “We don’t want to cut any further,” she told reporters.

The call for a ballot measure dealing with both K-12 and higher education may mark the first time the two sides have been joined together for their mutual benefit.

According to Joint Budget Committee documents, education draws 56.7 percent of the state general fund. Higher education gets another 8.8 percent, for a total of 65.5 percent. The concurrent resolution would ask that additional revenues generated for the support of those two areas would be exempt from TABOR.

TABOR author Doug Bruce told The Statesman Thursday that liberals were showing their true colors and say or do anything to overturn the measure, including trotting out school children. “This is an attack on people’s right to vote,” he said, adding that for once he was glad supporters of the resolution make no bones about it.

Bruce said that state spending has never gone down in 33 years, and when Democratic legislators talk about cutting, they’re talking about cutting the rate of increase. “There may be a reduction in general fund but that’s less than half of state spending,” he said. The resolution is based “on a fraudulent promise that the state is hurting for money.”

Bruce also scoffed at the idea that the supporters could get any Republican votes, pointing out that the recent package of nine bills repealing tax exemptions and credits didn’t get a single Republican vote. (Two of the dozen bills are still working their way through the General Assembly; the last was defeated.)

“If they can’t get a Republican vote for an individual tax increase,” Bruce said, “they won’t get a Republican vote [against] people’s right to vote.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com