DENVER– Gov. John Hickenlooper will soon have the opportunity to sign into law an education bill that calls for a $1.1 billion statewide tax increase and significantly alters the state funding formula for public schools. The bill originated in Hickenlooper’s “To Be Determined” initiative last year followed by his State of the State address in January.
“This bill does not mean that we are raising taxes,” declared Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon), who with Sens. Mike Johnston (D-Denver) and Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) are sponsors of Senate Bill 213, the Public School Finance Act of 2013.
“We know that through TABOR (the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights), we honor that process of putting the decision to the vote of the people. Senate Bill 213 does exactly that – put the question right where it belongs, as per TABOR, in the hands of the people of Colorado.”
Though Hamner paid homage to TABOR, Hickenlooper’s TBD initiative to push the tax increase and repeal TABOR began with a professionally orchestrated public relations campaign last year. The governor’s initiative was assisted by Democrat political consultants with ties to the Colorado Education Association union.
“TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23 shouldn’t be viewed in isolation,” warned Hickenlooper, who pushed to repeal the voter-approved constitutional amendments in his State of the State Address.
“They create a fiscal knot that can’t be untied one strand at a time,” declared Hickenlooper. “Efforts to rewrite the School Finance Act would be well served to take this into consideration.”
Monday, the House passed Senate Bill 213, 37 to 28, over the objections of Republican legislators who said the bill to raise taxes during the recession throws money at a status quo education system without meaningful reform.
The bill would assess a statewide tax increase and offers a complicated formula to allow districts that qualify to raise the current mill levy by 25 percent. In an attempt to provide equitable funding, the bill could reduce state education funds to middle income districts with higher local funding based on property values and mill levies.
The bill specifies that state funding give up to 40 percent per pupil funding to eligible schools which have both at-risk students, defined as those who received reduced-price lunches because their parents are deemed low income, and students who need education to become fluent in English.
Like many other Republican legislators, Rep. Carole Murray (R-Castle Rock) said the education reform bill might be well intended, but misses the mark.
Murray said the bill should define “at risk” student as those in need of educational instruction – not just determined by a parent’s income level.
The bill impedes parents from sending their children to schools that better fit their educational needs, said Murray, particularly in refusing to give bus tokens to low income, inner city students who would opt to attend another school.
Rep. Chris Holbert (R-Parker) said the tax increase campaign will like use the term “backpack funding” which the public could interpret as funds following a child who might change schools. But that is deceiving terminology, said Holbert, because the term “backpack” means “the right school in the public school system will get the money” during the fiscal year.
If the $1.1 billion tax increase is approved by voters, it will become effective in January 2014. The funding will not be doled out to schools until July 2015, the start of the next fiscal year. This bill follows last year’s $1.1 billion public education funding increase through taxes, bonds and mill levies in school districts.
If voters approve the new tax increase, Hamner successfully passed an amendment to direct those dollars in 2014 to the education reserve fund, educator effectiveness reserve fund, education computer technology and capital construction fund.
The reason for the preliminary funding directive, she said, is because school districts are not prepared to implement the bill’s mandate for full-day kindergarten and half-day preschool for children ages three to four years old deemed as at-risk kids.
Rep. James Wilson (R-Salida) said the bill’s sponsors had researched the public school education issues, but the bill “is hurried into construction. You don’t have to look very far to see that evidence… we just passed Amendment 174.”
That was also noted by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver), who said one of the bill’s sponsors said “this bill has more amendments than pages.”
Wilson said there are pages and pages of provisions in the bill that most legislators don’t understand – and potentially school districts and their voters.
“This bill might get lucky,” said Wilson of voters approving the tax hike. “But I submit to you folks that if we were lucky our roosters would be laying eggs. That is not going to happen.”