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Liddick: Spreading the wealth around

Morgan Liddick
special to the daily

Wasn’t today supposed to be The End Of America As We Know It? You remember: the Deadline. Empty-Pocket Tuesday. Deadbeat Day. The day the government runs out of taxpayers’ wealth to spread around. I just checked, and the sun still seems to be up. No wave of earthquakes, rain of toads or zombies walking around – except maybe in the District of Columbia. There weren’t even any winged monkeys, and I looked hard for them. So evidently the worst was not quite as bad as people were making it out to be. Then again…

Yesterday saw opening arguments in the case of Lobato et.al. vs. the State of Colorado, which has the potential to empty the pockets of every taxpayer in the state. Yes, that means you. This is a case so pernicious, so fraught with peril for the state’s economy, for taxpayers and government at every level that it has resulted in voluntary bipartisanship: it is vociferously opposed both by our Democrat governor and Republican attorney general.

The basics of the case are pretty straightforward. Mr. Anthony Lobato is suing the state of Colorado under a provision of the state constitution which states that a “thorough and uniform” school system shall be provided to all Colorado students. Mr. Lobato and the others associated with his lawsuit say that current levels of state funding have resulted in an educational system that is neither thorough nor uniform, and thus is in violation of the state’s charter. The opposition rightfully points out that criteria for measuring these requirements are not included in the constitution, nor is there any mention of funding in the 1876 document.

This whole business could be dismissed as just another example of what happens when one tries to legislate through constitutional provisions – TABOR versus Amendment 23 comes to mind – or of the mischief people can get up to through deliberate misinterpretation or distortion of a more than century-old document, were it not for the dire implications a decision for the plaintiffs would have for the state.

Such a verdict would shred the state’s already-precarious budget. The attorney general estimates it would cost Colorado an additional $2 to $4 billion immediately, with another $17 billion in construction costs to follow. To give you an idea of what that would be like, Colorado currently spends about $3 billion annually on education, which amounts to 40 percent of the state budget. So how could we comply with a requirement to double state expenditures on education? Not easily.

First, there is the problem of TABOR, which prevents raising taxes to a level commensurate with the requirements of the Lobato case without a voter okay. And since I suspect the argument that taxes must go up 35-40 percent statewide to address deficiencies in some school districts would not be a winning one, this would be a problem. As would rejiggering the state’s budget to comply; this would mean more than three-quarters of state tax money would be going to education – an unsustainable situation. The third method might be something like that used currently in Texas, with tax money earmarked for education collected in wealthy districts being shifted to poorer ones, instead of being returned whence it came.

Guess which type of district Summit County would be under such a system?

Economic damage aside, there are reasons to hope Colorado will prevail against Mr. Lobato et. al. The first is that the case is built on a false premise: that a “thorough and uniform” system of education can only be made so by the infusion of large sums of cash into poorer districts. Both the governor and the attorney general have come out against this line of thinking, with the latter promising to offer witnesses like Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and Rob Stein, who pulled Manuel High School back from the brink. Plaintiffs doubtless plan a parade of witnesses who will argue that if $3 billion is being spent now, $6 billion will be twice as good – despite the fact that our K-12 education budget increased 50 percent since 2001, with no discernable improvement in student performance…

The other objection is a matter of political philosophy. Traditionally in the United States, the judicial branch of government at whatever level, had practiced deference, a reticence to involve itself in issues clearly belonging to the executive or legislative branch. Over the past 40 or so years, however, the judicial branch at both state and federal levels has increasingly involved itself in matters formerly left to the legislature. Thus, Labato et. al. vs. the State of Colorado, through which a small group of plaintiffs seeks to get what they could not otherwise: unrestricted access to our wallets.

So there’s more than The End Of America As We Know It this week. Keep watching for those winged monkeys.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at mcliddick@hotmail.com


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