Heath: Raise taxes, aid education

The Colorado Statesman

Decrying massive cuts to Colorado’s funding for education, state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, this week unveiled an initiative aimed at this fall’s ballot to ask voters to hike state sales and income taxes for five years. His proposed ballot measure, dubbed Initiative 25, would raise an estimated $3 billion through 2016 by restoring tax rates to 1999 levels.

“Doing nothing in the face of these horrible budget cuts is just not an option,” said Heath on Monday at a press conference five days after the General Assembly adjourned for the year. He spoke surrounded by schoolchildren — some of whose parents complained the next day they didn’t want their children used as props for a political event — and representatives of a handful of education-advocacy organizations in an otherwise nearly empty State Capitol.

“People have said enough is enough,” Heath said, pointing out that school districts across the state are already beginning to feel the effects of drastic cuts made in this year’s education budget. “It’s time we begin investing in our most precious resource, our kids.”

While the Senate-initiated “Girls with Goals” resolution died in the House last week, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, above, pressed on this week with a citizen’s ballot initiative on K-12 and higher-education funding.
File photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Heath’s committee, officially named Support Schools for a Bright Colorado, had already raised over $100,000, he said, though he declined to detail the source of the contributions other than to say they were from “the business community.” Campaign finance reports listing contributions are due June 1, he noted, adding that he expects it to cost an estimated $300,000 to gather roughly 100,000 signatures to make the fall ballot.

It’s Heath’s third bite at the targeted tax-hike apple this year. In late March, he withdrew a similar proposed initiative that would have raised state taxes for three years, saying at the time he planned to introduce a permanent hike. At the press conference Monday, he said his final proposal settled on a five-year fix — mimicking the duration of the recently expired Referendum C, which allowed the state to collect revenue beyond constitutional limits — because that was enough to make the effort worthwhile without leading voters to believe it was sufficient in the long run.

“We don’t want to give the impression this is the big fix,” he said, calling his proposal “a band-aid” in the face of structural problems funding education in the state.

Under Heath’s proposal, state individual and corporate income tax rates would rise from the current 4.63 percent to 5 percent and the state sales and use tax rates would go to 3 percent, up from the current 2.9 percent. The measure, if approved by voters, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2012, and last through the end of 2016. Based on projections, it would bring in $536 million in its first year and enough to total about $3 billion in additional revenue over five years before it expires.

The extra revenue — above a baseline established by the 2011-12 fiscal year’s education funding — would go to pay for both K-12 and higher education. As the economy improves, Heath said, the Legislature could raise the baseline above the cuts enacted in the current year’s budget.

Heath said the question isn’t whether the state needs to invest in its schools, but “when.” And backers decided that this year — an off-year without any competition on the ballot — was the right time to take the measure before voters, he said.

“That’s one of the beauties, if you will, of having an off-year election,” he said, adding that the ballot measure wouldn’t have to compete for voters’ attention with a slate full of candidates or with other ballot measures for expensive airtime. “Any money spent on media will be infinitely cheaper,” he said.

One of the groups standing with Heath on Monday, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, withdrew a slate of ballot measures in late March, citing pessimistic polling and promised opposition from business groups. Heath said his initiative wouldn’t face the same barriers.

While Heath said his committee won’t be spending its money on any polling, he said a survey conducted recently by a local chamber of commerce shows support for the tax hike beating opposition at 51-43 percent among most likely voters. And he said he has commitments from various business groups and chambers of commerce “to stand on the sidelines and not oppose” his measure.

“We’re not going to have any business people standing up and saying this is not a thing we should do,” he said. Vowing to run perhaps the most extensive grassroots campaign in Colorado history, he announced, “I think we’ll have clear sailing with little or no opposition.”

But opponents barely waited for Heath to finish his press conference before sounding the alarm and branding his proposal as out of touch with Colorado voters.

Calling the tax-hike plan “tone deaf to the concerns of families and businesses across the state,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, blasted the initiative in a statement.

“Colorado has a revenue problem due to one simple fact, families and businesses are having a revenue problem,” Kopp said. “This Democrat proposal to raise taxes will only hinder economic recovery and put added financial stress on already struggling families. The Senate Republican caucus stands in staunch opposition to this measure.”

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton called a proposed ballot measure by Sen. Rollie Heath "a bad idea."
File photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, left no doubt where he stood.

“I’m opposed to it,” Stapleton told The Colorado Statesman after hearing Heath’s proposal. “I thought it was a bad idea when he introduced it three months ago, and it’s still a bad idea.”

Stapleton mocked Heath for unveiling his proposal when no one was around.

“He purposefully waited until the Monday after the Legislature adjourned — when the Capitol is a ghost town — because he doesn’t have support in his own caucus and the Legislature for this proposal,” Stapleton said. “The governor,” he added, “wasn’t within a 100 miles of this press conference.”

Addressing the initiative’s specifics, Stapleton said the state must address “deep” and “underlying” problems before throwing money at education. Otherwise, he said, “All you do is grow yourself a bigger problem.” Noting he has a school-age son, Stapleton said he’s all for funding education, “but not for funding a black hole without results.”

A bevy of Republicans opposed to Heath’s initiative recalled that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, observed months ago that Coloradans don’t have an appetite for a tax increase this year. A spokesman for Hickenlooper reiterated that point this week.

“The Governor made a promise to Colorado voters that he would not seek a tax increase in 2011 and he has no plans to support one,” said Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s director of communications. “He appreciates Sen. Heath’s motives, however, and hopes the proposal spurs honest public debate about fiscal and education reform.”

Meanwhile, a fracas brewed this week in Douglas County over the appearance of a fourth grade class from Wildcat Mountain Elementary School at Heath’s press conference.

The class, which had been touring the Capitol on a field trip downtown, joined the event after a supporter of Heath’s proposal approached a parent guiding the group. But parents of the other students hadn’t consented to letting their offspring be part of the political event, a spokesman for the school district said.

“The teacher made the error of saying yeah, sure that would be OK,” said Randy Barber, communications director for the Douglas County School District. After it got under way, the teacher realized what the press conference entailed, and “realized she made a mistake but allowed them to go though the entire event,” Barber said.

District policy strictly forbids students from taking part in political activities without parental consent, Barber noted. In addition, television crews filmed Heath’s press conference even though not all the children had media waivers on file, so district officials spent some time Monday calling reporters to ask them not to air footage that showed the students.

Once the class returned to the school, Barber said, the teacher talked with the principal and then called all the students’ parents, apologized and admitted she’d made a mistake. “She promised it wouldn’t happen again and the parents of the class understood and accepted the apology,” Barber said.

The matter came up Tuesday night at the regular meeting of the Douglas County school board following numerous calls from residents alarmed that students had been used as props to promote a tax hike.

“It was a commercial for the tax initiative,” said an angry Laurie Bratton, a Douglas County parent and active Republican who worked at the Capitol during the past session. “That certainly is not within district guidelines,” she said, adding, “It’s not sitting well down here in Douglas County.”

Barber said the Douglas County superintendent reiterated the district’s policy and informed the board the teacher had apologized, but that no disciplinary action was taken against the teacher.

As for Heath, he said he had no idea how the students got there.

Heath said he arrived at the press conference moments before it began. “A teacher walked up, asked if the class could stand by, I said sure that would be OK. I absolutely knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know who they were.”

— Additional reporting by Marianne Goodland

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com