School finance measure is officially on the ballot

Small cushion, big cost in petition gathering
The Colorado Statesman

Partisan wrangling over a ballot initiative to raise $950 million for school reform continued Wednesday just moments before the secretary of state’s office deemed the question sufficient for the November ballot.

Colorado Commits to Kids submitted 165,710 signatures last month after paying Washington, D.C.-based FieldWorks at least $779,047 for petition gathering activities. Only 89,820 of the signatures were deemed valid after a line-by-line review.

The initiative needed 86,105 signatures to make the ballot; meaning proponents only gathered 3,715 more signatures than were required, despite the expensive gathering exercise.

Campaign finance filings show that Colorado Commits to Kids paid FieldWorks $75,000 in June, $491,198 in July and $212,849 in August. The campaign declined to comment on the costly petition gathering.

Kelly Maher, executive director of conservative Compass Colorado, who is leading the opposition effort, said the numbers are telling. She believes Colorado voters must not be all that excited about the initiative if after a five-and-a-half-week paid effort, proponents couldn’t show more valid support.

“It’s not surprising because it’s largely funded by special interests,” said Maher. “They hired an out-of-state firm in order to do the petitions, and in addition to that, it is just another indicator of the fact that the people of Colorado don’t have an appetite for a billion-dollar-a-year tax increase.”

Compass Colorado is considering the option of a petition challenge that would seek to invalidate the initiative.

“If a proposal came forth that contained the types of reforms that actually increases student achievement, I’m sure Coloradans would be more willing to listen to the proponents,” added Maher.

She points out that the secretary’s office was forced to conduct a line-by-line review because the initiative failed a random sampling of valid signatures. State law requires a line-by-line review if the random sample shows the number of valid signatures falls between 90 percent and 110 percent of the 86,105 signatures needed. The percentage of presumed valid signatures was 107.88.

“When you have East Coast and special interests entering the state to try to impose their will on Colorado’s families, the result will never be a good one,” declared Maher. “The need for review is a huge indictment on the claimed momentum of their campaign. The people of Colorado do not want and cannot afford a billion dollar tax increase at a time when our recovery is fragile.”

But the broad coalition of Amendment 66 supporters say voters are becoming more energized and involved with each passing day. Proponents include business, education and civic leaders.

“Coloradans support the critically important improvements that Amendment 66 will bring to our public education system, like small class sizes, one-on-one attention for each student, and the chance to see where every dollar is going within each district,” explained Gail Klapper, director of the Colorado Forum, which worked for nearly two years to craft the ballot proposal.

“This is our best chance to invest in the future of Colorado and to ensure each child has access to a high-quality education,” Klapper continued.

“Momentum and support for the Amendment 66 campaign continues to build, and in the next 63 days we will work tirelessly to share our message with voters across Colorado, from rural communities to urban centers to suburbs,” added Andrew Freedman, Amendment 66 campaign director.

Voters will be asked to create a two-tier state income tax rate. Taxpayers earning up to $75,000 per year would see their rate increase from 4.63 percent to 5 percent; and earners above $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent.

Based on the median household income in Colorado of $57,000, taxpayers would see their annual income tax increase by about $132.

The initiative stems from Senate Bill 213, which passed the Democratic-controlled legislature this year. The measure essentially rewrote the School Finance Act.

The law calls for all-day kindergarten for all students; fixes to enrollment funding; more money for at-risk students and English language learners; measurements of academic growth and achievement in relation to funding; spending transparency; and equitable funding for all public schools, including charters.

But without the money from the tax increase, few of those reforms are possible.

Lawmakers on Wednesday finalized language that will appear in the Colorado voter guide known as the Blue Book. As was the case during the legislative session, the conversation quickly divided down party lines.

Republicans oppose the initiative, suggesting that it raises taxes on Coloradans at a time when they can’t afford it. Opponents are also worried that there would be additional costs to business owners; that the initiative would do little to reduce class size; and that some wealthier counties would end up funding students in other parts of the state because of new formulas.

At the Legislative Council Committee meeting on Wednesday, Republicans attempted several amendments that sought to add language to the Blue Book. The GOP wanted to clarify that business owners could see additional taxes depending on how they file; that class size might not be reduced; and that some counties would pay more than other counties to fund students in other parts of the state.

But Democrats shot down each of the proposals on party-line votes.

For example, on the amendment that would have clarified that some businesses could pay more depending on how they file their income tax, Assistant House Minority Leader Libby Szabo of Arvada said the amendment was about being honest with voters. She said because of the tiered system, there could be an almost $1,300 difference. Republicans believe as much as 75 percent of Colorado small business owners would affected.

“With the way that business and the economy is, and jobs are, that’s pretty tough as a business owner,” said Szabo. “That’s a pretty tough number to have to swallow. And for me to know that, and for me to be able to base my decision on that would be very important.”

But Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs believes the Blue Book is already clear, explaining that small businesses that choose to report their business income on individual tax returns would be affected.

“That’s in my view absolutely accurate, and they put it in there from a nonpartisan perspective, and I think adding this amendment to it actually adds to the complexity,” opined Morse.

But Republicans say Democrats are simply trying to block hard facts about Amendment 66.

“It is very popular for members on both sides of the aisle to talk about protecting Colorado’s small business owners and it is unfortunate when Democrats fail to walk the talk,” said House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland. “I am disappointed my friends across the aisle failed to think it was important to highlight the consequences of approving this tax increase on Colorado’s hardworking small business owners.”

“It’s discouraging that Democrats don’t want Colorado voters to have all the relevant information before deciding to vote for or against this tax increase,” added Szabo.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com