Young school teacher helping boy with study on laptop in classroom

Side view of young school teacher helping boy with study on laptop in classroom

Two Democratic lawmakers plan to ask voters this November to divert TABOR refunds to primarily help pay, attract and retain teachers, making it third in line for TABOR surplus revenues.

The measure, if approved by voters, would take all remaining surplus TABOR revenues, once property tax exemptions and the affordable housing initiatives voters approved in November, under Proposition 123, are paid for. It would eliminate TABOR refunds, such as the one sent to taxpayers beginning last August. 

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Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, a former board of education member in the Poudre School District, and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, are working on a proposal that would ask voters to approve a statutory measure that would provide additional funding for school districts to "attract, retain and pay teachers and student support staff," as well as help stabilize school district budgets.

The bill is expected to be introduced in the House later this week. 

Already, opposition to the legislation has begun to line up. A Republican leader said TABOR is meant to get money back to taxpayers first — and then policymakers can talk about spending priorities after.  

Democrats have in the past tried through various ways to undo TABOR, arguing the money is better used to fund the state's priorities. Republicans, on the other hand, have argued that the refund program puts money where it's most effective — in the hands of taxpayers.   

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Under a draft of the measure, excess state revenues — other than those for property tax exemptions and affordable housing — would be deposited in the State Education Fund and used to supplement general fund dollars, with a directive that the money go to teacher recruitment, retention and pay, as well as for student support staff, which can range from paraprofessionals to bus drivers.

A fact sheet for the measure claims Colorado teachers are the least-competitively paid in the nation. The National Education Association, in a report issued last June, said teachers nationally are paid $2,150 less now than they were 10 years ago, and that Colorado ranked in the middle for teacher pay in 2020-21. 

The draft bill blames the crisis in teacher pay on 13 years of cuts to education funding through the budget stabilization factor. That's the decision made by lawmakers following the Great Recession to cut public education funding, despite a voter-approved constitutional measure — Amendment 23 — that required public education funding to increase annually by the rate of inflation.

In an attempt to balance the 2010-11 budget, lawmakers initially cut more than $1 billion from public education. The debt has been whittled down to $321 million. 

But 13 years of budget cuts have resulted in "difficult choices," the draft bill says, and that has meant larger class size, unfilled teacher and support positions, reduced physical and mental health support, increased fees and less funding for teacher salaries. That's caused teachers to leave the profession because more money and less stress can be found in other careers, the bill's legislative intent says.

Kipp told Colorado Politics Tuesday that the proposal is little more than a band-aid for the pay crisis for teachers.

"This is not long-term sustainable funding for public education" nor "the ultimate solution we need to get to," she said, but it would ward off the fiscal cliff the state is headed for in education funding, which relies in part on one-time dollars. 

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That fiscal cliff refers to one-time federal stimulus dollars tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The draft points out that funding for public schools has been supplemented in the past three budgets with those one-time dollars.

Kipp said the measure does exactly what TABOR suggests — if policymakers want to keep tax revenue, they have to ask the voters for permission. She said that, in knocking on doors during her recent reelection campaign, people started to understand the crisis in teacher pay, a problem she said made more visible by the pandemic.

Kipp said in some districts, reserves, which are also one-time dollars, are being used to pay teachers and student support staff, a situation she called "appalling."

Some school districts say they can hire one teacher or 2.3 paraprofessionals, which indicates those staff are being badly paid, as well, she added.

Kipp said people have said when it gets bad enough, people will decide to do something.

"I think we're there," she said.

The proposal is raising a number of questions suggested by Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, a former state board of education member who sits on the Senate Education Committee. 

Lundeen said TABOR's first job is to get money back to the taxpayers.

"Then the policy conversation is what to do with the money," he said, referring to what the Constitution allows the General Assembly to spend after a refund to the people has been made.

He added that the priorities ought to be putting money back into people's pockets and then focus on education and roads and bridges. Then the policy conversation can take place on other ideas, he said. 

Long an advocate for school choice, Lundeen also questioned whether charter schools could be allowed to tap into those funds, describing Kipp as having been "unfriendly" to charter schools in the past.

"We must defend the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. It keeps the money in the most effective place: in the pockets of the people," Lundeen said.

Michael Fields, president of Advance Colorado Institute, said the state has seen a big increase in education funding over the last few years.

"The problem is that not enough of that money is going towards teacher pay. People want better accountability with the dollars we are already spending on education," he said.

He said Coloradans have made it clear they want to keep their TABOR refunds.

"With cost of living higher than ever, that money should go back to Colorado families," he said, adding, "The same coalition that helped defeat Prop CC in 2019 will be ready to defeat this proposal, too."

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