Colorado voters will get to weigh in on the same issue now facing a Denver district judge – paying for schools.
The secretary of state’s office Wednesday certified the Bright Colorado initiative for the Nov. 1 ballot. The proposal was designated Proposition 103.
If passed, the measure would raise the state income tax to 5 percent and the state sales tax to 3 percent, their levels in 1999. The increases would be in effect for only five years, generating an estimated $550 million a year that would be earmarked for increased funding of school districts and state colleges.
Also Wednesday, the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit finished its 18th day. The plaintiffs in that case seek a court order declaring the state finance system for K-12 schools unconstitutional and ordering the legislature to come up with a new one.
After doing its usual signature sampling and checking, the Department of State estimated that 98,369 of the 142,824 petition signatures submitted were valid. The minimum number needed to get on the ballot was 86,105. (See news release and ballot language.)
Certification of the signatures represents vindication for Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and the organizations that backed the idea he started thinking about last winter as school budget cuts loomed in the legislature.
In a statement, Heath said, “During the past few weeks, we’ve seen momentum build as our already strong, largely grassroots coalition gathers support from a growing number of organizations and individuals. We are committed to a person-to-person campaign for our kids that will continue to build toward a positive outcome in November.”
Great Education Colorado and the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, along with several smaller groups, mobilized supporters around the state to gather signatures. The campaign used novel techniques such as downloadable petitions.
Mainline education groups initially were on the sidelines, and some groups had doubts about whether it’s a good year to propose a tax increase and whether the proposal should wait for development of a broader fiscal fix to the state constitution.
But the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives have now endorsed the initiative. (See a list of endorsing organizations here.)
The Hickenlooper administration also has been cool to Heath’s idea, with Gov. John Hickenlooper repeatedly saying he believes voters have “no appetite” for tax hikes this year.
Asked about the proposal during his testimony at the Lobato trial Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia was careful with his words: “I’ve always been supportive of such measures in the past.”
House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, was quick out of the box Wednesday with criticism of the plan, saying, “Democrats don’t get it. Colorado’s hardworking families and job creators are struggling to survive in this recession. The last thing they need right now is Democrats pushing another state tax increase.”
Heath has steadfastly worked to position Proposition 103 as a stopgap fix to stabilize the succession of budget cuts that have hit schools and colleges in recent years. He believes it would give education breathing room while civic and business groups that have been debating broader fixes to state finances come up with a proposal.
(The funding fix sought by plaintiffs in the Lobato case is a permanent one. And no matter how Judge Sheila Rappaport rules, the issue is expected to linger in the courts, and perhaps the legislature, for years. If Proposition 103 passes, the higher taxes would go into effect next year.)
The Boulder senator now faces the task of raising money for a campaign. He earlier estimated the petition-gathering effort would cost about $150,000. That effort was kick started with a $100,000 donation from Denver oilmen Sam Gary and Ron Williams.
Heath has said he’d turn to raising campaign cash after the signature gathering was done.
The last school funding measure on the ballot, Amendment 59, was defeated by voters in 2008. Pushed by then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Amendment 59 was a proposed constitutional change that would have altered the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to provide school funding.
Proposition 103 is a proposed change to state law that wouldn’t affect the constitution. Romanoff faced similar problems with lukewarm support, but Amendment 59 also was deep on a crowded ballot in a presidential election year.
Proposition 103 will be the only statewide measure on this year’s ballot, and there are no statewide races either. Several school districts around the state are considering asking voters for bond issues of property tax rate overrides.
The campaign organization is Support Our Schools for a Bright Colorado.