DECIDE initiative passes House education committee but its fate may be sealed

By Marianne Goodland

A referred legislative measure to the November 2011 ballot that would exempt a portion of K-12 and postsecondary education funding from TABOR restrictions passed the House Education Committee on Monday. But its success likely ended with the education committee vote as it is unlikely to gain the half-dozen Republican votes it needs to get out of the House.

House Concurrent Resolution 002, known as the DECIDE ballot initiative, passed the House Education Committee by an 8-4 party line vote on Monday. The measure was also introduced in the Senate, as SCR 002, and will be heard by the Senate Education Committee on April 29. Both measures are sponsored in the House by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, and in the Senate by Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora.

Benefield told the House Education Committee on April 19 that the initiative would address an issue about which she is passionate: how to ensure an equal playing field for education. But that isn’t possible because of the [TABOR] restrictions in the consttituion, she said.

HCR 002 and SCR 002 both ask voters to allow the General Assembly to increase revenues without voter approval and to exempt those revenues from TABOR, if the revenues are to “prevent or reduce reductions in funding for preschool through postsecondary education or for improving preschool through postsecondary education.” The bills also say the money could be used for expanding preschool, full-day kindergarten or family literacy programs; reducing class size, expanding the use of technology, improving student safety or teacher effectiveness; or improving accessblity, quality and affordability of career and technical education or postsecondary education opportunities.

A concurrent resolution needs 44 votes in the House and 24 votes in the Senate. Even if every Democrat supported both measures, at least six Republicans would need to support the bill in the House and five in the Senate. The DECIDE referred measure is not likely to get either which is why the bill was cross-introduced.

Under the state constitution a referred measure or ballot initiative dealing with TABOR can only be voted on in odd-numbered year elections, hence even if it passed DECIDE would not come up on the ballot until next year.

The hearing Monday took place in a packed Old Supreme Court Chamber and testimony lasted more than four hours. Lisa Weil, policy director for Great Education Colorado and also representing Great Futures Colorado, told the committee “inaction is no longer an option ... we want a chance for Coloradans to decide whether Colorado should continue to slash education funding or whether to invest in schools, colleges and universities and our economy. Unless DECIDE is on the ballot voters will have no choice and no voice.”

Weil noted the recent votes on the School Finance Act, HB 1369, which cuts $260 million from K-12 education, and said that voters passing DECIDE would prevent future cuts.

Denver City Councilwoman Carol Boigon, chair of Great Education Colorado, told the committee that, “we must recognize how deeply our state, cities and communities are affected by Colorado’s inability to support schools, colleges and universities. It is an economic and moral issue,” she said.

Most of the witnesses testified in favor of DECIDE.

Chris Johnson of Golden, a small business owner, said he was a “Reagan Republican” who believes in lower taxes and smaller government “except when it comes to funding education.” State income and property taxes in Colorado are low and could be raised to address education funding, and while his two children are both in public schools Johnson said he has begun looking at private schools because of the cutbacks and larger class sizes in the public schools.

Carrie Warren Gully, a parent of three sons in Littleton Public Schools, said her school district will lose $7.5 million to $9 million in fall 2010, about 8 percent of the budget. Her sons have benefited from seeing a reading specialist, but cuts in next year’s budget means there will be no more reading specialists in her sons’ schools, she said. The International Baccalaureate program at two schools is being eliminated; the French program at Arapahoe High that her son has been taking also will be gone, she said.

College students and faculty also testified in favor of DECIDE. Renee Ruderman, an English professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, said students are working more and concentrating less in class.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, asked several witnesses to define an adequate level of funding. “To me this is not a question of whether we want our kids to be the best educated. It is the goal of every public policymaker in all 50 states.

The question is how we fund education,” he said. Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, whose husband is a school principal, said she understands that it is “brutal” in education. But during a tough recession the bill is a “sledgehammer” to TABOR rather than a scalpel, and that the General Assembly has had to make tough choices about funding for a lot of things. “We’ve had to put the mentally ill on the street” nor lived up to obligations to seniors or developmentally disabled. “It’s a fiscal emergency” in every state and everyone has to share the pain, she said.

Several teachers from Douglas County testified that it is in part reflected by class size, and to give children resources when they are younger so that the schools don’t have to spend money on remediation when they get older, but couldn’t identify a specific number.

Testifying in opposition to HCR 002, several witnesses said the bill was not about education but was an attempt to eviscerate TABOR and take away voter approval for taxes. Don Bammes of Parker said he wanted a say, “who gets into my pocket,” and elected representatives have not proven they can handle his money, he said.

Several representatives of a new “TABOR Committee” testified against the bill, including its chair, former Republican state representative Penn Pfiffner, who said that the legislation was a “frontal attack” on TABOR that would take away all voter approval for tax increases. “All of us want good education” he said, but this is not the vehicle to do it. Pfiffner also said that general fund budget gets income from all kinds of taxes but the bill purports to identify a stream just for education. The bill doesn’t provide a way to track where that revenue is, and the state would have to set up a separate budget for that revenue that he said would be impractical and expensive.

Education Committee member Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, voiced his support for education but not for HCR 002. “All of us on this committee are advocates for education” Massey said, pointing out he has fought for education funding during his six years in the legislature, especially for rural school districts. But in his six rural counties there have been funding cuts to corrections, Medicaid reimbursements, transportation, child welfare programs and tax incentives to small businesses. “It would be disingenuous for me to go home and say we would create a cutout for education only,” Massey said, suggesting that what is needed is something more comprehensive rather than just for education. “I cannot go back to my district and tell some people they can have and others they can’t.”