DENVER — Colorado voters have a big decision to make in a political off year: Should they raise their own income taxes a few dollars a week to correct years of struggling school funding? Or is the largest permanent tax hike ever posed to voters too much now that the rebounding economy is sending more tax dollars to schools anyway?
It's a decision that could determine the future of public education in the state, not to mention the political futures of politicians taking sides on it.
The measure is the result of years of work by education advocates, but they have a ways to go explaining the overhaul to voters.
At the Denver Botanic Gardens, many people there with their children hadn't heard of the tax proposal, and some wondered why it should come in the form of a higher income tax instead of some other kind of tax.
"I can't say that I've heard of it. But I think we could stand to pay more," said Heidi Farr, a Denver mother of three who teaches her school-age daughter at home rather than send her to public school.
"I don't feel the school that she would go to is good quality," Farr explained.
Another mom who hadn't heard of the tax measure was Kyla Hinton, who liked the idea but wondered about the mechanics of the tax hike.
"It doesn't seem that (schools) have the money they need, so yeah, I'd say I'd vote for it," Hinton said. "But I'd prefer a sales tax increase over an income tax."
Colorado's current income tax rate is a flat 4.63 percent. The proposed ballot measure, announced last month, would set taxes at 5 percent for income up to $75,000 a year. For those earning more, any income earned after the first $75,000 would be taxed at 5.9 percent, giving Colorado a progressive tax rate for the first time in more than 25 years.
A person with an annual income of $45,000 would pay an additional $166.50 a year. Someone who earns $100,000 a year would contribute an extra $595 annually.
The change would raise nearly a billion a year to fund things like statewide full-day kindergarten, enhanced services for special-needs students and intensive interventions for pupils who can't read by third grade.
The tax would also trigger overhauls to how Colorado funds schools, wiping out a system that has for decades acted to shift the burden for school funding away from local governments and to the state. It would also make school spending more transparent, allowing the public to see how much each school spends on salaries.
Supporters worked on the funding overhaul for years. Now they have to sell the public on it, facing an Aug. 5 deadline to turn in more than 86,000 signatures to put it on ballots.
They're being helped by a sizable donation from Colorado's teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, which kicked in $250,000 to pay for signature gathering and other organizational efforts. It's likely the supporters will have no trouble making the ballot, given the ready-made network of teachers and education advocates who are talking up the ballot measure as the best chance to improve schools.
"It finally puts some decent funds behind our students," said Bruce Broderius, former dean of education at the University of Northern Colorado.
Now retired, Broderius says he's taking petitions to his church, his neighbors, even his poker group to rally support for the measure.
"I think it's about time that the adult population of Colorado stands up and says, yes, we're going to spend some money and do better for our schools," Broderius said.
It won't be an easy sell, though. Colorado voters are famous for rejecting taxes even for programs they support. Two years ago, Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected another income tax proposal to fund schools, 64 to 36 percent.
This year's funding overhaul passed with no Republican support in the Legislature. And even Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has appeared slow to warm to the idea, telling The Denver Post recently he was "ambivalent" about the proposal, then telling a closed-door business group Wednesday that he supports it.
A Hickenlooper spokeswoman insisted the governor is fully in support of the higher income tax to support schools.
"When the governor is enthused about something he gets in with both feet and all ten toes," spokeswoman Megan Castle wrote Thursday.
Republicans have accused Hickenlooper of trying to distance himself from a big tax hike that's essential to enacting the overhaul he signed into law. Republicans point out that increasing tax revenues during the last two years have meant that funding to schools haven't been cut — a big reversal from the recession, when cuts were the norm.
"There really is no desire among Coloradans for a billion-dollar tax increase," said Kelly Maher, head of conservative advocacy group Compass Colorado. She called the funding overhaul signed by Hickenlooper "essentially just a tax-increase marketing plan."
Supporters of the measure say there's plenty of time to explain the overhaul to Colorado voters, and to sell them on the need to more school funding. No one likes higher taxes, supporters concede, but the state of Colorado school finances is such that big reforms are needed.
Dave Hoover, a retired executive who heard Hickenlooper's tax pitch at the business group, said he's adverse to taxes but doesn't see a better solution for permanently correcting the state's school-funding dilemma.
"If not this, then what?" Hooper said.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt