DENVER – A Democratic state senator’s campaign to raise taxes for schools poses vexing questions for people in his own party who want better-funded state services for everyone, not just students.
Sen. Rollie Heath’s Proposition 103 would raise sales and income taxes the next five years, collecting an estimated $3 billion that would be earmarked for schools and colleges.
Heath has the support of teachers’ unions and progressive groups, but he at first had to overcome worries that he would step on the toes of people who want to ask the voters for bigger reforms.
For a couple of years, politicians, business leaders and nonprofit activists have been quietly talking about “the big fix” – some sort of constitutional change or tax change to pull the state out of the cycle of perpetual budget cuts.
Ideas include a repeal or rewrite of constitutional amendments that mandate spending on schools and low property taxes, as well as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights’ cap on government spending.
Others have proposed a permanent tax increase, and Heath had to convince liberal groups this spring to abandon their drive for a long-lasting tax increase in favor of his five-year plan.
He’s impatient to do something now for schools and colleges, which have seen large cuts the last three years.
“Do we just sit here and twiddle our thumbs while we figure out the big fix?” Heath asked.
Heath doesn’t think Proposition 103 is a long-term solution for Colorado, but each child gets only one chance at each grade in school.
“To make the kids wait this out until the adults figure it out is not an option for me,” Heath said.
He isn’t getting help from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat.
Hickenlooper’s predecessor, Gov. Bill Ritter, took pride in cobbling together budgets that shielded schools from cuts to the largest extent possible, mostly by relying on temporary funding like the federal stimulus bill.
Hickenlooper, in contrast, has a two-year plan to make permanent cuts in the hopes of ending the cycle of emergency budget cuts. But the size of education cuts he proposed last spring shocked many people in his own party, and he has signaled that more large school cuts are on the way next year.
Hickenlooper has not talked about the big fix, but he hinted at a long-term strategy in an interview last week.
“This first year, we were really focused on trying to make sure we had a way of trying to restore the public’s faith that there isn’t waste, that we’re using every dollar wisely,” Hickenlooper said. “If you’re a business, you can’t ask your customers for more money if they don’t already trust that you’re giving them value right now.”
Although he is not supporting Proposition 103, he’s not actively stumping against it, either.
“We’re not campaigning for 103. I made a commitment I wouldn’t support any new taxes the first year,” Hickenlooper said.
Republicans have prodded Hickenlooper to explicitly campaign against the initiative.
Hickenlooper’s budget proposal goes to the Legislature the first week of November. His staff is preparing just one budget, with no backup plan in case Prop 103 passes.
If it does, the windfall would help schools, but it might cause headaches elsewhere in the budget. The proposition forbids the state from cutting schools and colleges below their current funding levels and requires the new tax money to also go to schools.
It’s possible that the provisions could require deeper cuts in social services.
“It’s something we’ve talked about. Next year, let’s say we’re even worse off and we have to cut more, that money would have to come from somewhere else,” said Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee.
Hodge supports Prop 103. She’s optimistic that state finances will not take a turn for the worse, and she thinks the best plan is to help schools now and figure out the rest of the budget when the Joint Budget Committee starts to meet next month.
But the Joint Budget Committee’s vice-chairwoman, Rep. Cheri Gerou, said the proposition would make it harder to write a budget by inserting another spending requirement into state law.
“Rollie Heath and several other people have said they don’t like to have their hands tied, and that, in effect, is what this measure is doing,” said Gerou, R-Evergreen.
Ballots for the mostly mail election will be sent this week.