In Breckenridge, Lt. Governor, Education Commissioner talk school finance
Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia thinks the state could be on the cusp of changing the way the entire country thinks about funding K-12 education.
The only hurdle is convincing Colorado’s taxpayers to approve a ballot initiative that would increase their state income taxes to pump $1 billion into public school funding.
“Everyone in this room understands education has been underfunded for years in this state,” Garcia told an audience of educators during Wednesday’s Colorado Association of School Executives convention in Breckenridge. “We need to get past the unfunded negative factor of the last several years. We need more equitable funding directed at student growth.”
In addition to serving in the second highest executive position in Colorado, Garcia was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to head Colorado’s Department of Higher Education. On Wednesday, Garcia joined Colorado Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond at the DoubleTree hotel in Breckenridge to answer questions about a number of policy changes in the Colorado Department of Education and provide an update on education reform legislation passed in the most recent session of the Colorado General Assembly.
Colorado Senate Bill 13-213, the Future School Finance Act, was top of mind for Garcia and the educators in the audience.
The measure, passed on party-line votes in both the House and Senate, aims to fund K-12 education through an increase in state income taxes. The initiative, currently known as “Colorado Commits to Kids,” must be proposed to and approved by voters in the form of a November ballot question, according to the Tax Payer Bill of Rights.
According to preliminary ballot question language, the state income tax rate would increase from 4.63 percent to 5 percent for individuals and households with a total income of less than $75,000. The rate increases to 5.9 percent for individuals and households reporting a total income greater than $75,000.
“If we get this initiative passed, we will absolutely lead the nation,” Garcia said. “This will help our students, our communities and our state.”
One of Garcia’s selling points is even if the initiative passes, Colorado would continue to be one of the least tax-burdened states in the union.
“We can’t have low taxes and a booming economy without an educated populace,” Garcia said.
Although Summit County residents have a strong history of supporting education by approving mill levies and bond overrides to fund programs in the Summit School District, Colorado Commits to Kids faces opposition in other parts of the state, namely among rural Colorado conservatives.
Joe Petrone, superintendent of the Moffat County School District in Craig, said Wednesday he was disappointed to learn Club 20’s education and workforce development committee recently voted to oppose the ballot initiative. Club 20 is a coalition of individual, business, tribal and government entities located in Colorado’s 22 West Slope counties.
Club 20 member Ray Beck attended the meeting when the education and workforce committee voted to oppose Colorado Commits to Kids. He said it is important to note that the committee’s decision does not yet reflect the perspective of the entire organization. The committee will present its recommendation to Club 20’s full membership during its fall meetings in Grand Junction.
“Club 20 does not oppose funding K-12 education or even higher education,” Beck said. “We support K-12 education, just not certain provisions in this bill.”
Specifically, Beck said the committee was concerned that the legislation does not include any constitutional assurance that the new tax revenues will be used for education. It fears, through action by the legislature or governor, that funds could be diverted to other government needs, such as to financially subsidize the Public Employees’ Retirement Association of Colorado.
Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton has said publicly during his time in office that PERA’s earnings assumptions for its employee pension funds are not in tune with reasonable rate-of-return expectations.
District 33 state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, wrote SB13-213 and attended Wednesday’s CASE convention. He said some will oppose the ballot initiative simply because of the negative connotation of the words “tax increase,” but he thinks educators can rally support for their cause if the message is presented honestly.
“In both parties people really believe in education; they think it’s the most important thing we do (in government),” Johnston said. “I also believe people (voters) want to invest in education, but they want their government to be accountable for the funding they are asking for.”
Johnston already has spent numerous days on the road, traveling to every corner of the state championing the legislation he sponsored and garnering support from the tax base. He said his message is focused on the innovative nature of the legislation.
“Typically, when governments need funds they ask their taxpayers for a blank check and then do nothing to be accountable (for the money),” Johnston said. “We wrote this (SB13-213) to be deliberately transparent. Taxpayers will be able to track every dollar the state spends on education, right down to their local school districts.”
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