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Lottery money could go to education

CHRISTINE MCMANUS

DENVER ” Coloradans might vote in November whether half of Colorado Lottery proceeds should be diverted away from open space and recreation to help fund education instead.

A ballot initiative in the works would take millions of dollars earmarked annually for parks, open space and recreation and give it to college students and K-12 capital projects and programs.

The initiative is being sponsored by a University of Colorado law student who has three young children in Evergreen schools.

CU law student Melissa Montgomery-Fitzsimmons, 36, is meeting today with the Colorado title board to determine whether her initiative complies with laws regulating the statewide ballot this November.

“It’s time for the state parks and GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado) to tighten their belts,” Montgomery-Fitzsimmons said. “Think of all the college scholarships that could be funded with that money. This initiative also would fund preschool and after-school programs that don’t exist now.”

The newest impending battle for higher education funding in particular reminds Ron Holliday of the 1980s at the state capitol.

Holliday ” now Summit County manager and board member of Great Outdoors Colorado ” was the state parks director at the time.

“Every year dozens of lobbyists for higher education would try to divert primarily state parks and recreation funding. I have scar tissue on every part of my body from those days down at the state capitol,” Holliday said.

Those battles died down in the early 1990s when voters approved the formation of Great Outdoors Colorado. The formation of GOCO took power away from the legislature to distribute parks by establishing a funding formula from lottery proceeds.

Re-igniting the battle, Montgomery-Fitzsimmons filed the ballot initiative by the April 23 deadline. She recently turned in a term paper on the subject but denied requests to provide a copy.

After an initial visit with state officials earlier this month, she has rewritten the initiative to include funding not only for higher education but also for public school capital projects, preschools and after-school programs.

Montgomery-Fitzsimmons did not disclose who she is working with on the initiative beyond several parents and fellow law students. She said the persons or organizations are awaiting clearance from their lawyers.

The proposed ballot initiative, if successful, could cut parks, open space and recreation funding in half statewide.

Since the lottery formed more than 20 years ago, Coloradans have not wavered in their mandate that lottery proceeds go toward parks, recreation and open space.

“If this makes it on the ballot, I can see the campaign ads now: ‘How do you want lottery money spent, on higher education or open space and recreation?'” Holliday said.

Coloradans three times in the 1990s rejected legislators’ ballot initiatives to divert parks and open space money to transportation or education. The state’s population has increased by more than a million people since then.

“New Coloradans care as much or more about open space and preserving Colorado’s last great places,” said Will Shafroth, founder of the nonprofit Colorado Conservation Trust and former GOCO director.

“I’m not going to debate on the merits of higher education. It is a core part of public funding, and instead of coming after quality-of-life programs, higher education funding ought to be reflected in the state budget” Shafroth said. “Lottery funding is extra. It shouldn’t be framed as an either or issue.”

The initiative would hit Coloradans after legislators failed this year to reformulate the virulent mix of Amendment 23, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and Gallager laws. The fiscal combination rachets down state revenues while increasing education spending. The combination of laws has been blamed for the state’s fiscal woes.

That’s exactly why Montgomery-Fitzsimmons is targeting lottery funds. They aren’t subject to the growth restrictions of TABOR, she said.

She said she does not want the initiative to be perceived as a threat to parks and open space.

GOCO spokesperson Chris Leding said her organization is watching and waiting to see whether the initiative makes it on the ballot.

Should open space split $100 Million with education?

Colorado Lottery proceeds currently go toward the preservation of open space, to local parks and recreation and to Colorado State Parks, to the tune of about $100 million per year.

Fifty percent of lottery proceeds would go toward education if the initiative is successful. Montgomery-Fitzsimmons said half ($25 million) would go toward college scholarships, one-fourth ($12.5 million) would go to K-12 capital projects and one-fourth ($12.5 million) would go to universal preschool and after-school programs.

If lottery ticket sales keep the same pace, GOCO would only receive $25 million, not $50 million, for open space grants if the initiative makes it on the ballot and passes in November.

Currently 40 percent of the $100 million goes to the Conservation Trust Fund for local parks and recreation. Instead of $40 million, local governments would split $20 million per year with the initiative.

Ten percent of the lottery revenues currently go toward Colorado State Parks. Instead of $10 million, state parks would receive $5 million annually.

Overflows above the maximum GOCO amount currently go to school capital construction costs. There has not been much overflow the past few years, said Diane Reimer, spokesperson for the state Department of Revenue.

The ballot initiative would not allow the new education funding to supplant existing education funding, said Montgomery-Fitzsimmons. The state schools budget was $4.3 billion last year for 752,000 students in 1,600 schools, said Karen Gerwitz, spokesperson for the State Board of Education.

“Fifty million is a lot if you’re in a crunch like we are,” Gerwitz said.

Summit’s competition for open space dollars would increase

Compared to some counties, Summit County has received a fraction of open space funding from the lottery. Summit annually receives about $100,000 plus any grants, which have totaled more than $3 million, half of which came in the past year, Holliday said.

“It would hurt, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for us because county voters approved a local sales tax for open space that brings in about $2.4 million annually,” Holliday said. “Of course, competition for those GOCO grants would be even more tough.”

If the state officials approve the ballot initiative today, Montgomery-Fitzsimmons would need to collect at least 67,829 signatures by Aug. 2 of registered voters who support the measure for the issue to get on the ballot and into Colorado voters’ hands.

If she is not successful, the citizen’s initiative would have to wait two years or be sponsored by legislators in 2005.

Christine McManus can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229 or at cmcmanus@summitdaily.com.


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