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Gazette Premium Content Legislator proposes tax increase to fund Colorado schools

JOHN SCHROYER Updated: August 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

Colorado has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from K-12 schools and higher education over the past two years. Schools have cut back to bare essentials and laid off employees, and tuition at state colleges and universities has skyrocketed.

At the state level, the debate has raged over how best to solve the problem, and a few months ago one state senator lost his patience. Boulder Democrat Rollie Heath ran a petition drive this summer, and on Monday, turned in 142,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office for a ballot initiative that would raise taxes to help restore some of the cuts. He needs 86,105 valid signatures of registered voters to make the ballot.

The measure, which Heath says would raise $2.85 billion over its five-year lifespan, would increase the state sales tax and income tax by less than one-half of 1 percent: The sales tax would go from 2.9 percent to 3 percent, and the income tax would go from 4.63 percent to 5 percent. Heath said that rounds out to about $160 per year for a family earning $55,000 per year.

The increases would expire after five years, and after that, Heath said, the state will have to tackle policy problems in the state constitution in order to help stabilize education funding.

Heath announced the ballot initiative in May. He said the fact he was able to gather so many signatures by the Aug. 1 deadline reflects how Coloradans are tired of seeing education funding slashed.

“I think people are ready to say ‘enough is enough’,” said Heath, who gathered more than 1,000 signatures on his own.

Republicans disagree.

“If a person is irresponsible with $100, why give them $150?” said Eli Bremer, chair of the El Paso County Republican Party.

He said public education needs to be more effective and more efficient with the money that it already has, instead of asking voters to ante up more money in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years.

State Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, chairs the Senate Education Committee. He said the fundamental problem with the initiative is there’s no guarantee the money raised would even go to education, since Heath didn’t — or couldn’t — include a funding mechanism in the initiative.

“It’s a false premise,” said King. “This is even worse than Amendment 23.”

Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, commented, “The worst thing we can do is to raise taxes. It’s the wrong policy, especially now when people throughout the state are struggling to make ends meet.”

Jan Tanner, vice president of the Colorado Springs District 11 school board, retorted that schools have already slashed services to the bone.

“Our schools are bleeding,” said Tanner. “I want to ask our families and our voters, is that OK with you? Because it’s sure not OK with me.”

So far, the only political backing Heath has — aside from grassroots volunteers — is the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards. Tanner said D-11 has yet to take up the issue, and other school boards around El Paso County said the same thing on Friday.

It’s the same with many chambers of commerce. The Colorado Springs Chamber is going to wait until the measure is certified for the ballot before it decides whether to take a stand on the measure, and the Denver Chamber of Commerce is also holding off.

Heath, however, said he’s pitching the initiative to every group he can find. He said there’s a built-in economic driver in his measure, because businesses are fundamentally interested in states and communities with high-quality educational systems. Colorado’s K-12 educational system is 46th in the nation in funding, Heath said, and spends $2,000 less per pupil than the national average.

Despite his optimism, Heath will likely be fighting an uphill battle. The phrase “tax increase” is anathema to Coloradans. A bipartisan coalition of state politicos, including various chambers of commerce and then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, were barely able to get a tax measure passed in 2005.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler has until Aug. 31 to either certify or reject Heath’s signatures.

Contact the writer 476-4825.

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