Colorado tax votes raise questions about school funding
November 2, 2011
DENVER – Resounding defeats this week for tax increases to fund schools have Colorado educators wondering about their next steps in the face of spiraling budget cuts.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, repeatedly warned this year that the poor economy gave voters “no appetite” for higher taxes. Turns out, he was putting it mildly.
Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly defeated the only tax hike on any statewide ballots this November. Proposition 103, a proposed temporary hike in sales and income taxes, lost by nearly 30 percentage points, a blowout. Also, voters from Grand Junction to Douglas County rejected more than a dozen local school financing questions. Voters also rejected local proposals to spend money on recreation centers and police.
“This isn’t rocket science – the economic and political circumstances are not favorable to these kinds of things,” said Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer.
Educators and policy experts warn that Colorado’s government faces dire consequences if changes aren’t made. A recent economic study by the University of Denver projected that Colorado won’t be able to afford its three biggest ticket items – schools, prisons and Medicaid – by 2024.
“Bottom line, we have a situation where the services people expect for their communities cannot be funded in the current framework,” said Carol Hedges, director of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.
Recommended Stories For You
So where’s the big idea to fix it? Even the governor isn’t sure.
“I think what we’ve begun is a conversation,” Hickenlooper said Wednesday. “We’ve got to begin a conversation that might take some time, one year, two years, three years.”
Colorado’s labyrinthine constitution makes raising taxes difficult without voter approval, and voters spoke pretty loudly against taxes this week.
Educators concede they’ll have no choice next year but to further cut schools already whittled by years of budget cuts. More schools will likely face four-day school weeks, or bigger class sizes because they have to lay off teachers. Hickenlooper this week proposed a spending plan for next year that would cut K-12 schools by another $89 million. Earlier this year lawmakers cut schools more than $200 million, to about $2.8 billion.
Mike Wetzel, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the Colorado Education Association is hoping people don’t shy away from talking about school funding because Proposition 103 lost so badly.
“Proposition 103 would have been a temporary fix even if it had passed,” said Wetzel, whose group backed the temporary tax hike. “We really need a balanced approach to talk about, how do we fund our schools in a way that is consistent, that is in line with what we want for our kids?”
Republicans insist that Colorado’s tax-averse mood is here to stay, and that schools will have to make do with less.
“Tax hikes on the state and federal level, used to fuel unsustainable spending addictions, will remain at the forefront of the debate over fiscal policy heading into next year,” Tyler Houlton, spokesman for the conservative group Compass Colorado, said in a statement Wednesday.
Hedges, whose group pushed for the tax hike, said she hopes the anti-tax votes in Colorado don’t mean there’s little hope for future discussions on Colorado’s funding problems. Like other supporters, she pointed out that even Colorado’s tax-limiting Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights failed before it passed in 1992.
“There are a lot of people who do share a concern about the problem” of school financing, Hedges said. “Our system is designed to be incremental. OK, this one didn’t work, let’s go after it again.”
But will politicians shy away from talking about school finance given Tuesday’s emphatic results? Straayer, the political scientist, said the public’s anti-government mood is keeping public officials, and even business groups, quiet about taxes to boost state coffers.
“I just don’t see the broad-based leadership pushing for it,” Straayer said.
The director of DU’s Center for Colorado’s Economic Future, which prepared the state projection earlier this year, didn’t seem surprised by Tuesday’s votes but predicted state finances will change – eventually.
“Structural problems take some time to be created, and they take some time to be resolved,” Charlie Brown said. “It’s a little overwhelming for policy makers right now.”
Hickenlooper seemed to agree.
“It could take quite a while” to build consensus for long-term budget changes, either cuts or new taxes, Hickenlooper said. “You want people to feel fully heard and that they have a sense of ownership of what government looks like.”