Sin taxes, open contract negotiations among education issues on ballot
October 12, 2014
Of the four initiatives on the ballot for all Coloradans this November, two could change the way school districts do business.
Amendment 68 would allow the state's only horse track, Arapahoe Park in Aurora, to bring in casino gambling immediately, and the amendment's supporters and opponents hope the millions they've spent in campaign contributions pay off.
The ballot initiative has seen more money pour in, mostly from out of state, than any other issue or race this election by far.
The initiative specifies that a certain percentage of the gambling operation's taxes would go toward education funding, however former Summit School District superintendent Rep. Millie Hamner and the Colorado Association of School Boards oppose the so-called "sin tax."
The other education-related ballot initiative, Proposition 104, aims to make teacher contract negotiations public.
Though the Summit School Board hasn't taken a stance on either initiative, school board vice president Erin Young shared why most people in education are opposed to both initiatives.
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CASH FLOWING IN AND OUT OF the STATE
Arapahoe Park has pushed allowing casino-style gambling at the racetrack to prop up its horse racing business in Colorado and fend off casino competition where its parent company, Twin River Casino, is based in Rhode Island.
Besides one facility in Arapahoe County, the measure also would allow for one similar horse racetrack casino operation in both Mesa and Pueblo counties after a track has been operating in those places for five years.
In the first 30 days of operating casino gambling, each horse racetrack would have to pay a $25 million one-time fee to the state, in addition to standard impact fees imposed by local governments. The casinos would also pay 34 percent of their adjusted gross proceeds each year to the state.
The one-time fee and the annual taxes would go to a state K-12 education fund, something the amendment's proponents have latched onto by naming their political committee Coloradans for Better Schools.
Almost all the money raised by that committee has come from the Arapahoe Park racetrack owner, Mile High USA, which has contributed nearly $19 million.
Meanwhile, the mountain casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek that stand to lose if gamblers prefer a Front Range casino, have thrown their weight behind the opposing committee:
Ameristar Casino Resort Spa — $5 million
Isle of Capri Casinos — $4 million
Jacobs Entertainment (Golden) — $4.5 million
Monarch Casino and Resort — $2 million
Affinity Gaming Black Hawk — $1.3 million
Representing the Summit School District, Young was one of 82 voting delegates from the state's 178 school districts that met for the annual Colorado Association of School Boards delegate convention in September. There the association decided to oppose all sin taxes.
"These are things we tell our kids not to do" because they're illegal or inappropriate, Young said, and the association believes sin taxes set the wrong tone.
Beyond that, she said, the amendment would send "a weird message to taxpayers," who might think education is well funded and contributing with future property, sales and income tax increases is unnecessary.
She pointed to misconceptions around Amendement 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, that tons of pot tax money is going to education.
Amendment 64 set aside the first $40 million of revenue raised by marijuana excise taxes every year for school capital improvement projects through a grant program called BEST.
A state facility assessment a few years determined the need for school capital projects was around $18 billion, said Mark Rydberg, the Summit School District's business services director, so $40 million is nice but small in comparison.
Summit also doesn't usually qualify for the BEST grants, which are distributed based on greatest need.
"We're not expecting any money from Amendment 64," he said.
The state projects Amendment 68 will boost school funding by $96 more per student for the 2015-16 school year and $132 more per student starting with the 2016-17 year.
That's a 1.3 percent increase from Summit's per-pupil funding this year of $7,315, Rydberg said. "It's all perspective."
Another way of looking at it, he said, is by comparing the $81 million the amendment is projected to bring to education in its first year to the state's overall K-12 education budget, which was nearly $4 billion this year and still affected by the roughly $900 million, the so-called negative factor, that represents budget cuts in recent years.
"Would we be able to find a way to spend that money? Yes, but it's not like it's going to drastically change K-12 funding," Rydberg said.
Given that labor contracts represent the largest portions of school districts' budgets, taxpayers, parents and teachers should have access to how contracts are negotiated.
So goes the argument put forth by the Independence Institute, the free-market think tank driving Proposition 104 and pushing for more transparency by making negotiations public.
This proposition would apply to the school districts in Colorado with collective bargaining agreements, only one-fourth of the districts, but they represent three-quarters of the state's students.
The institute has contributed $20,000 directly and nearly $300,000 in in-kind donations to support the measure.
The group opposed has raised about $62,000, including $42,000 from teachers union Colorado Education Association, $5,000 from the union American Federation of Teachers Colorado and $15,000 from the advocacy group Education Reform Now.
In Summit, district human resources director Trisha Forman said it's unclear how the measure would impact local negotiations.
Young said the Colorado Association of School Boards was opposed because the initiative takes control away from local districts and could harm negotiations for teachers.
"It really does a disservice for our teachers and their unions," Young said. "I'm a firm believer in protecting the privacy rights of the employee."
In addition to requiring open negotiations, Proposition 104 would make board strategy sessions public and expand the kinds of district leaders subject to the state's open meetings law to school administrators.
RACE FOR REGENT
At the University of Colorado, a Summit County local is running for an open spot on the board of regents, the governing body of the state's flagship university.
Joe Neguse, the representative for District 2 which includes Summit County, is now running for Colorado secretary of state.
Kim McGahey, 59, who has lived in Breckenridge since 1978 and has worked at a real estate broker since 1983, considers his bid for office an extension of his education experience.
He has served on the Summit School Board and as president of the Breckenridge Elementary School PTA. He helped with former Gov. Romer's Children First one-cent sales tax initiative in the early 1990s and as chair of the Summit County Bond Election Committee which helped pass a $58 million bond that funded new school construction.
McGahey said if elected he would move the overriding philosophy of the university away from Ward Churchill and more toward Thomas Jefferson with the goal of exposing students to broader perspective and world views.
Narrow liberalism has been suffocating the university and its graduates and making it hard for them to get jobs, he said, whether they're applying at Google, IBM or the Sierra Club.
"When a CU grad shows up in an interview for a job, I want that interviewer, that employer, to look at that candidate and go, 'Wow this is a sharp kid,'" and want to hire the person, he said. "I don't think that's happening right now."
As a regent, McGahey said he would set policy that improves the curriculum and quality of the faculty and scrutinizes and tightens department budgets.
McGahey chairs the Summit County Republican Party, and the party's website says he believes in limited government, free enterprise and personal responsibility.
"I don't consider myself a politician. I consider myself a citizen in the tradition of John Adams and James Madison," he said, describing leaders who moved from the private sector to the public sector and back again after their terms ended.
McGahey faces Linda Shoemaker for the position.
Shoemaker, a former journalist and attorney, graduated from CU as did two of her three adult children. She served on the Boulder Valley School District Board of Trustees in the 1990s and now serves on the CU Foundation Board of Trustees.
Shoemaker established the philanthropic Brett Family Foundation with her husband, Steve Brett, in 2000 and founded the Bell Policy Center, a progressive think tank that provides public policy research and advocacy. Her campaign website is shoemakerforcu.com.