Revamped ballot issue being planned for 2011

Great Futures Colorado to focus on fiscal reform

By Marianne Goodland

Two recent reports from the Colorado School Finance Project have prompted an education-advocacy group to renew their commitment to a ballot measure in 2011. But the ballot measure may look very different from the one they promoted during the last legislative session.

During the 2010 legislative session, the advocacy group, Great Futures Colorado, supported two identical concurrent resolutions that would ask voters to allow the General Assembly to increase revenues without voter approval and to exempt those revenues from TABOR, if the revenues were to “prevent or reduce reductions in funding for preschool through postsecondary education or for improving preschool through postsecondary education.” The bills, HCR 10-002 and SCR 10-002, also said the money could be used to expand preschool, full-day kindergarten or family literacy programs; reduce class size, expand the use of technology, improve student safety or teacher effectiveness; or improve access, quality and affordability of career and technical education or postsecondary education opportunities.

Neither measure got the two-thirds votes needed to get out of the House or the Senate. HCR 002 got out of the House Education Committee on a party-line vote on April 19. The full House took action on HCR 002 on May 12 but the resolution got just 35 votes out of 44 needed; it failed to gain the support of any Republicans and also did not get the votes of Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins or Rep. Kathleen Curry, U-Gunnison.

The Senate version fared even worse. SCR 002 passed the Senate Education Committee on a party-line vote on May 4, but that was the end of it. The Senate never took up the resolution for a second reading debate before the session ended on May 12.

That hasn’t deterred Great Futures Colorado. The coalition announced last week that it would commit to a ballot measure for the November 2011 election, but a spokesperson hinted that ballot measure may focus more broadly on fiscal reform than just funding for K-12 and higher education.

The Great Futures announcement cited two reports released earlier this month by the Colorado School Finance Project (CSFP), which “compiles, collects and distributes research-based information and data on topics related to school finance.” The project was created in 1995 and is funded by Colorado school districts, the Colorado Association of School Boards, Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado BOCES Association.

The two reports surveyed K-12 cuts for 2010-11, based on actual numbers from school district and media reports from January through June that reported K-12 budget cuts. The media report covered 75 out of the 178 districts, for about 90 percent of the K-12 population. While the survey of school district cuts covered just 23 districts, representing about 32 percent of the state’s K-12 population, it did include nine districts that were not included in the larger media report.

The report showed that budget cuts just for the 75 districts are more than $288 million. The largest cuts, totaling $179 million, are in Douglas County, at $33 million; Denver Public Schools, at $30 million; Adams 12, at $22.2 million; the D-11 district in Colorado Springs at $16 million; Cherry Creek, at $15.1 million; Aurora Public Schools, at $15 million; Jefferson County, at $13.8 million; Mesa 50 and Poudre Valley, both at $12 million and Boulder Valley, at $10 million.

The media report also included how the cuts were made: through staff reductions, benefit cuts and furloughs; increases in class size, cuts to transportation funding, faculty or teacher reductions; and in seven districts, primarily rural, going to a four-day school week. The largest district to report that move is Mesa 51 in Grand Junction.

Tracie Rainey, executive director of CSFP, said this week that what stood out for her was the magnitude of the decisions being made by the school districts. No one district was immune from the cuts, she said. That included fewer choices for high school students on curricula, going to a four-day school week, or reducing reading programs and staff development.

Rainey said the CSFP wanted two avenues of reporting on school district budget cuts, to give districts that weren’t covered by the media an opportunity to show what they were doing to handle the reductions. Rainey said an updated version of the survey will be published to include more districts that have self-reported since the first report came out earlier this month. Rainey said she hopes the reports “will create awareness that this is a problem for every district in the state.”

The news from CSFP prompted Great Futures Colorado to send an open letter to the citizens of Colorado through a July 15 press release. “As citizens and taxpayers, we know that education is the most important investment we can make in our children, our state and our economy.

“Unfortunately, Colorado's state budget doesn't reflect those values. Colorado ranks among the bottom states in support for our schools, colleges and universities — and now we're making even more crippling and irreversible cuts.

“The legislature could have given voters a chance to better fund education by passing the ‘DECIDE’ referendum (HCR 1002), which was proposed by the Great Futures Colorado coalition. Because the legislature didn't, the November 2010 ballot won't give voters any opportunity to prevent and reverse cuts. Even worse, three initiatives on the ballot (Proposition 101, and Amendments 60 & 61) would even further decimate public education.

“We, the undersigned, are parents and grandparents. We are Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters; businesspeople, clergy, professionals, students and educators; we are rural, urban, suburban, P-12 and higher ed.

“We are the public education supporters of Colorado and we will not let another year pass without giving Colorado voters the opportunity to provide a better legacy for our children.

“We commit to a ballot measure in November 2011 that will increase funding for public education, because our children have already waited far too long.”

The letter was signed by nearly 500 people from all over the state, including Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora; and former Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada. The sponsors of HCR 002 and SCR 002, Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada; and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, were not on the list.

But the policy director for Great Futures Colorado said this week that what may be planned for the 2011 ballot may be more than just dealing with K-12 and higher education funding — it may instead focus on much broader fiscal reform.

Lisa Weil told The Colorado Statesman this week that the coalition doesn’t want another year to go by without changes, and toward that goal the coalition is working with the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute and its senior fiscal policy analyst, Carol Hedges. Hedges is a familiar face at the state capitol; during the 2010 session she testified in favor of a controversial package of bills designed to repeal certain state sales and use tax exemptions and income tax credits. Hedges also is the author of the 2003 Ten Years of TABOR: A Study of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which said that TABOR had diminished the role of elected officials, that it was not responsible for Colorado’s growth economy in the 1990s, and that its provisions made it impossible for the state to set up a rainy day fund for state services that could be used to in times of economic downturn.

Weil said the Great Futures Colorado and the DECIDE coalitions were committed to working with other groups to make sure that something would appear on the 2011 ballot that would bring relief to school districts and public colleges and universities. She did not close the door entirely to working with the General Assembly on another effort in its next session. “If they’re interested in doing this, fabulous,” she said. “We’ll make sure they hear from their constituents. But we won’t wait for them” to act, she added.

Weil characterized the coming effort as an opportunity to educate Colorado citizens about the need for fiscal reform. “In the best of all worlds, we’re not working on just one issue,” but on several issues, including education, health care and the environment. “Fiscal reform is an issue for all of Colorado,” she said. “Our first hope is to work together toward a broad solution.” Weil said the state’s fiscal problems have created a situation where education is now underfunded and “every public service is pitted against the next.” As a result, the coalition is interested in a bigger picture solution that puts the state on solid footing, makes it economically competitive and is not crippled by a lack of public services.

“Our preference is to work together for a solution for Colorado long-term,” Weil said. “No band-aids.”

Hedges did not return calls for comment.

Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute said that such a ballot measure sounds like a “beat-up TABOR and expand government tax increase.” Caldara told The Statesman that the issue for Colorado taxpayers is the economy. “The last thing people will do is [vote to] raise taxes and hurt families,” Caldara said, noting that if it were to get on the ballot it would not be the only tax measure in 2011. RTD is also going for a tax increase, he pointed out.

“I think [fiscal reform] would be a hard sell,” Caldara said. “It would be better if they decided to address spending issues instead of addressing revenue issues — but that takes real political courage they don’t have.”