DENVER — Teachers unions and several wealthy Coloradans are spending millions to convince voters to agree to almost $1 billion annually in higher income taxes devoted to public schools.
But they face an uphill battle with an electorate that rarely agrees to increase taxes. And opponents of the measure say they’d like to spend at least $1 million in the fight, though the sources of that money likely won’t be revealed.
Amendment 66 would raise the state income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent on the first $75,000 of taxable income and to 5.9 percent on taxable income beyond $75,000. It would be the first tiered income tax since a single tax rate was adopted in 1988.
I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS and Maplight are teaming up on www.votersedge.org/colorado, a website offering details about the proposal’s pros and cons, its funding and daily updates on news stories. The site also offers information on Proposition AA, which would place taxes on retail marijuana sales statewide.
Revamped Finance Formula
Amendment 66 would raise about $950 million a year in the first year and about $1 billion after that. And it would require that 43 percent of the state’s general fund go to pre-K-12 public schools.
The initiative would fund a revamped school finance formula that would give more money to districts with higher proportions of at-risk and non-English speaking students, as well as increased funding for preschool and kindergarten students.
It’s a more complex proposal than those in the past — including a 2011 effort that would have temporarily raised sales and income taxes for education, but lost with only 36 percent of the vote.
“That was a temporary fix, and it didn’t have widespread initial support,” said Curtis Hubbard of the 2011 effort.
Hubbard is a spokesman for Colorado Commits to Kids, the pro-Amendment 66 group that raised more than $7.7 million through Oct. 9.
Despite promises that money will go to classrooms as specified by the legislature’s Senate Bill 213, which revises the school finance formula but will not take effect if Amendment 66 doesn’t pass, not everyone is convinced.
‘A Budget Nightmare’
Norma Anderson was in the state Legislature for 19 years, serving as both House and Senate majority leader. She was a key author of the 1994 school finance act, which would be replaced by Amendment 66, and she is still active in education efforts.
A Republican, Anderson is one of the leaders of Coloradans for Real Education Reform, a primary opponent to the tax hike.
“My concern on this, it’s a budget nightmare, and you’re tying up the general fund in the Constitution,” she said. “It’s too much money, and I’m not sure it’s going to the right places.”
Hubbard counters that the bill changing the funding formula requires annual audits of spending, a website to allow the public to compare how money is spent and a return-on-investment study every four years.
Spending Big to Win
Backed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, at least 25 school districts and several local chambers of commerce, Colorado Commits to Kids spent more than $1.4 million to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and is now spending on television advertisements, fliers and other strategies to support the initiative.
That compares with $7,605 for Kids Before Unions and $14,500 for Coloradans for Real Education Reform. The Independence Institute, a libertarian Denver think tank, donated $10,800 to the latter group.
An Independence Institute program, Kids Are First, is running television ads against Amendment 66. As a nonprofit, the organization doesn’t have to file disclosures with the Colorado Secretary of State. The Kids Are First donation page says it has raised $668,025 of a $1 million goal.
“I’d love to spend $1 million,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, though he said some of the advertising is coming from the think tank’s general budget. “As a (nonprofit) organization, we don’t report to the secretary of state.”
Backers of Amendment 66 are disclosing their donors, though, revealing some of Colorado’s deep pockets in campaign finance.
The bulk of that money comes from large donors. Among them:
• The National Education Association gave $2 million through Oct. 9.
• The Colorado Education Association gave $2 million.
• Pat Stryker, the medical technology heiress from Fort Collins, gave $825,000.
• The Gary Community Investment Co., operated by Sam Gary, founder of the Piton Foundation, gave $700,000.
• Education Reform Now, a national nonprofit, and Ben Walton, a Wal-Mart heir, each gave $500,000.
• Other six-figure donors include David Merage, $254,314; Rose Community Foundation, $200,000; Stand for Children, $103,409; and Kaiser Permanente Financial Services Operations and Davita Total Renal Care at $100,000 each.
Colorado’s ‘Best Opportunity’
Since voters approved the Taxpayer Bill of Rights in 1992, they also must ratify any state or local tax increase, even if it’s to retain tax money that exceeds the TABOR financial formula.
Of 16 funding proposals since 1993, voters have approved only five. One of those, Amendment 23 in 2000, didn’t increase taxes or fees – it simply required lawmakers to increase spending on K-12 schools.
Two years ago, voters defeated an effort to raise income and sales taxes for five years to fund education.
Supporters hope that emphasizing benefits for individual school districts will sway voters this time around. On Oct. 12, supporters of Amendment 66 organized to campaign for the measure in 15 communities including Greeley, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Durango, Steamboat Springs and others.
Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, is optimistic about the 2013 proposal.
“I think Amendment 66 is the best opportunity we’ve had to actually pass a measure that will provide additional funding for school reform,” she said. “The recession really underscored for people how important education is to economic opportunity.”