Amendment 66: Battle Over Colorado School Tax Draws Big Money, Heavy Hitters

October 20, 2013

Colorado Springs Gazette

Smaller classes. Fewer fees to parents.

More time and tools for teachers.

Money for reform.

Those are just a few of the benefits that would come with passage of Amendment 66, which would pump almost $1 billion into education in Colorado by raising taxes, proponents say.

Critics argue that increasing taxes while the state’s economy wrestles with recovery is a bad idea and that most of the money won’t trickle down to teachers and students. It will be eaten up at administrative levels and fund PERA, while leaving the door open for future tax increases.

What’s more, there are no guarantees, opponents argue.

Studies show the initiative could both help and hurt the state’s economy.

It all depends on who you talk to.

At this stage in the battle for votes, with the Nov. 5 election nearing, there’s passion on both sides. Spin is everything and if you don’t understand it all, you’re not alone.

“The obvious thing that is shaping the debate is that it will require a tax increase,” said Josh Dunn, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “I think that’s drowning out everything else.”

“It’s difficult to gauge the public’s position right now, what the voters think,” said Dunn, whose specialty is education policy and school finance.

At a taxpayer cost of $950 million, Amendment 66 would trigger a revamp of school financing in Colorado. To pay for it, a typical household in the state would fork over $133 a year, proponents estimate.

It’s the funding trigger for implementation of SB213, which overhauls how state taxes would be used to fund public education.

Amendment 66 makes plenty of promises about impacting public education from pre-school through the 12th grade.

Not everybody believes the promises, however, and big money is rolling in as both sides rush to get their messages out.

On Monday, Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Independence Institute President Jon Caldara spoke to business people at a meeting at The Broadmoor. Both oppose the initiative. Four days later, the El Pomar Foundation held a debate between supporter Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver and Caldara.

Both sides are loaded with heavy hitters, although the biggest war chest – about $7 million – belongs to supporters.

Among those who have endorsed Amendment 66 are Colorado Commits to Kids, National Education Association, Colorado Education Association, Greater Education Colorado, Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler, The Bell Policy Center, and the League of Women Voters of Colorado.

“We think it’s good for Colorado,” said Rich Jones, director of policy for the Denver-based Bell Policy Center. “It’s good for the students and for the families. It’s wide-ranging and has a lot of very positive things for education.”

“I think there is a lot of support out there for it,” said Bell’s Jones. “There’s an awful lot of work being done to reach out to people and reach out to families. I think it will pass, but I think it will be close.”

Jones acknowledges, however, that it’s a tax hike, “which in any circumstance is always a challenge, but I think this one benefits from the fact that it is very clear in the legislation and the amendment what it’s going to be used for and where it will go. It’s for something that I think has a lot of support throughout Colorado.”

It’s a matter of educating voters, says Curtis Hubbard, spokesman for Yes on 66.

“What we find is that in talking to voters, when we’re able to explain how Amendment 66 can deliver smaller classes, more one-on-one, retention, restoration of programs like gym and art and music and deliver reforms that would make Colorado a national leader in education, they are supportive of it,” he said.

A point of contention between the forces is how the amendment will affect the economy.

A study released Oct. 9 by the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business says the amendment “will slow economic growth, reduce personal income and cut private-sector jobs.”

The economy would lose $224 million in economic activity during the first five years, according to the study.

A second study by the school, however, found that if approved, Amendment 66 could produce about $4 billion in annual economic gains once the factors of a reduced dropout rate and increased graduation rates are included.

Yet another study, this one by a professor at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver found that Colorado stood to gain $3.3 billion a year in economic impact when other factors were considered, such as lower unemployment and less welfare, less crime and savings in health care and increased retention of businesses and recruitment. Still, 96 percent of the 7,500 members of the Colorado chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said they oppose the amendment in a recent survey.