Guest Columns

HUDSON: ONLY SO MUCH MONEY TO BE HAD

November’s school finance ballot measure could hurt other prospects for next year

The Colorado Statesman

Since Colorado voters approved the TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) Amendment in 1992 with 53.7 percent of their votes, thereby awarding taxpayers the right to vote on all future tax increases, no statewide tax hike has been approved.

Local governments have had a somewhat better record, when the purpose for proposed levies and the specific projects on which they will be expended, are outlined in detail. Also on the lengthy ballot in 1992 was a penny increase in the state sales tax intended to help equalize school funding. It was accompanied with promises of greater accountability and other reforms in Colorado’s schoolhouses, but was turned down by 54.4 percent of voters.

Voters have approved only Referendum C, which was packaged as a limited timeout from TABOR that would permit state government to restore a portion of the spending slashed following the dotcom economic collapse at the turn of the century. It’s worth recalling that it was actually paired with a Referendum D, which offered an assortment of additional goodies for the highway lobby. D failed, while C barely squeaked past the required 50-percent threshold. This proposal enjoyed a broad supporting coalition that included all the King’s men and all the King’s horses. Republican Governor Bill Owens partnered with House Speaker and Democratic legislator Andrew Romanoff to barnstorm the state. ‘Ref C’ was premised on the notion that everyone would receive a piece of the action — higher education, K-12 schools, transportation and human services would all benefit. The billion dollars it would funnel into state budgets during the following five years was viciously assaulted as “the largest tax hike in state history.” Barely half of voters decided that foregoing TABOR refunds wasn’t the same thing as a tax increase.

Denver Senator Mike Johnston has crafted a far improved K-12 school funding equalization plan than the one presented to voters in 1992. Implementation of this year’s Senate Bill 213 is linked to a permanent, billion dollars a year revenue boost going forward.

Rustling noises have emerged from the closet where this funding package is being engineered, including a squabble among Democrats over whether to restore a graduated state income tax. Whom the Republican advocates might be remains a mystery, as SB 213 passed both Houses of the Legislature without a single Republican vote. The business community, including the Denver Chamber, has expressed opposition to the tiered income tax despite the fact they generally support the changes the bill would bring to school funding. Win or lose this November, Johnston’s campaign means bad news for all the other constituencies that are coveting a spot on the 2014 ballot.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, together with his docile Board of Regents, has been ratcheting up the noise on behalf of expanded higher education funding. The transportation and infrastructure lobbies are lusting after a sales tax increase, as are most human service providers. The fact is that TABOR has performed just the way Doug Bruce intended, gradually asphyxiating state government as Colorado gradually settles to the bottom of the national pile in terms of taxpayer support for public services. Governor Bill Ritter, the champion convenor of Blue Ribbon, panels silently slipped their reports in the bottom drawer of his desk, promising to take a “grand bargain” to voters during his second term. Whether or not John Hickenlooper found their recommendations remains a mystery. As the TABOR monoxide renders our politicians ever groggier and increasingly incoherent, leadership has been equated with wringing even greater efficiencies from government.

If Johnston and the governor manage to quietly slip their funding formula (TBD) for SB 213 past voters this year (and that appears highly improbable), it likely closes the door to the other fund-ing aspirants who would like to go to the ballot in 2014. Voters will properly say to themselves, “We just gave you SOBs a billion dollars, why are you bothering me again so soon?” And should they lose, unable to sell K-12 funding, which is clearly more popular than any of these other crusades, what chance is there for their success? “Ref C” got it right. There has to be a fund-ing package that lifts all boats. Yes, that probably means an even bigger, borderline frightening tax increase. But, that’s what political leadership is all about — reaching compromise, joining arms and selling your story. Colorado voters have shown they can be persuaded.

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant whose columns and stories appear regularly in The Colorado Statesman.