Ballot questions: Vote on tax hike taking shape

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The tax initiative tied to funding of a major overhaul of Colorado’s school finance formula has been determined, and the campaign that’s behind it now has a name.

Now, the real work for organizers begins: Getting signatures for a ballot proposal and, ultimately, trying to sell voters on the need for supporting about $950 million in new taxes that will be used to reshape how schools are funded.

A committee that is calling itself Colorado Commits to Kids announced last week that they will work to put a two-tiered income tax increase on the ballot this fall.

The tax initiative, which will impact higher wage earners more, will support the funding needed to enact Senate Bill 213, a major rewrite of the School Finance Act.

The act, which was passed by the Legislature earlier this year, would create full-day kindergarten, provide preschool for at-risk children, and would put more money into needs-based programs for special education students and children who are learning English.

The legislation also aims to increase per-pupil funding for school districts across the state that supporters say would be done in a more equitable fashion than the current system allows.

“We are eager to have a vigorous debate when the campaign begins in earnest,” said Curtis Hubbard, on behalf of Colorado Commits to Kids. “We’ve worked almost two years on this, trying to support the right measure. We think we’ve hit on the right system.”

Right now, Colorado’s current income tax rate is a flat 4.63 percent, regardless of income level. The initiative will ask voters to approve an addition 0.37 percent in taxes on income earners who make up to $75,000 a year, bringing their tax rates up to five percent. Residents making more than $75,000 a year would pay 5 percent on their first $75,000 of taxable income, and a rate of 5.9 percent on income above that amount.

Republican legislators opposed Senate Bill 213 during the recent legislative session and their opinions aren’t changing now that they know what the tax initiative will look like.

“A tax increase like this runs the risk of stalling this fragile economic recovery moving forward,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

Waller also wondered why the tax hike is needed, citing recently released revenue forecasts that project the State Education Fund will have a balance of $1.6 billion for the coming budget year.

However, state Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, countered Waller’s argument by saying the revenue increase is loaded with one-time funds that are meant for “rainy day” spending.

“They want to play Russian roulette with my children’s future,” Schafer said of Republican opposition to the tax hike. “This is going to restore our school funding to where we were in 2008, when we had to make serious cuts.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper has yet to make a direct statement in support of the proposed tax initiative. However, the governor did say after signing Senate Bill 213 that he “certainly” would campaign for the ballot effort.

Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown did not directly answer whether the governor supports this particular tax scheme.

“Colorado has approved some of the most robust education reforms in the country,” Brown wrote in an emailed statement. “These are reforms the governor fully supports. Now, it appears voters will get a chance to endorse the changes and set a new course for Colorado kids. We look forward to following the petition process and continuing to talk to the business community and other stakeholders about these reforms.”

Waller blasted Hickenlooper for “failing to take a stand” on the issue.

“He’s not very good at making decisions and it’s always at the last minute,” Waller said. “When you’re the governor, you’re paid to be the leader. It’s frustrating.”

Asked if Colorado Commits to Kids has Hickenlooper’s support, Hubbard said, “Not quite. But I think that it’s close.”

“Everyone is on a different time frame,” Hubbard said. “It’s not frustrating. We appreciate the governor’s thoughtfulness.”

Organizers have until Aug. 5 to collect 86,105 valid signatures from Colorado voters, in order to qualify for the November ballot.

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