School tax-hike petitions submitted

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Organizers behind a tax initiative tied to an overhaul of the school finance formula say they have turned in nearly twice the number of signatures required for the proposal to go before voters in the fall.

Initiative 22 supporters on Aug. 5 claimed to have turned in more than 160,000 signatures of Colorado voters to the Secretary of State’s office.

The proposal would create more than $900 million in new taxes and would support the funding needed to enact Senate Bill 213, a major rewrite of the School Finance Act that was signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier this year.

Supporters say the number of signatures they had been collecting since June surpassed their expectations.

“It was only seven weeks, so I think it was a world record,” said Gail Klapper, director of the Colorado Forum, a group that played a major role in the crafting of Initiative 22.

Initiative 22 would raise taxes on all Colorado taxpayers. The two-tiered proposal would raise income taxes to 5 percent on everyone earning $75,000 or less. Those who earn over that amount would pay 5 percent on the first $75,000 in taxable income and 5.9 percent on taxable income above $75,000.

Colorado’s current income tax rate is a flat 4.63 percent, regardless of income level.

Putting that into perspective, the Colorado Commits to Kids campaign — the group behind the initiative — says that Coloradans with incomes of $30,000 would pay less than $1 a week more in taxes, or about $50 a year. Likewise a person making $150,000 would pay a little over $14 a week more in taxes, or $731 a year.

However, opponents correctly point out that those numbers are not based directly on adjusted gross income, which would mean those with a taxable income of $30,000 would pay an additional $111 a year, while those with taxable incomes of $150,000 would pay an extra $1,230 a year.

If funded, the new school finance formula 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 new formula would reduce class sizes and increase per-pupil funding for school districts and charter schools.

Supporters say the new formula would also create greater accountability of where taxpayer dollars go, through the use of a state-maintained budget transparency system.

“I think part of the problem with the old school finance formula is that no one understood how it worked, or what it did or why it did it,” said state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, an educator and former high school principal who sponsored the school-finance bill. “We believe the voters deserve a clear understanding of knowing where their tax dollars go.”

The Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 213 passed this year without any support from Republican legislators. Organizers of the “No on Initiative 22 Committee,” which calls itself Coloradans for Real Education Reform, held a Capitol press conference later in the day to blast the initiative.

Kelly Maher of Compass Colorado, a conservative nonprofit group, said before the press conference that it’s the wrong time to ask Colorado voters to support a nearly $1 billion tax “scheme,” given the “fragile recovery” of the economy.

Maher also cited revenue forecasts that project the State Education Fund will have a balance of $1.6 billion for the coming budget year.

“This scheme, which is a $1 billion tax increase, doesn’t actually provide for making education outcomes better for students,” Maher said. “It’s exactly the wrong time to put an onerous tax on Colorado families.”

But Johnston thinks parents who have seen school fees and class sizes increase over the years, while “their kids’ favorite programs are going away,” will end up seeing the need for the initiative to pass.

“A lot of voters are skeptical of taxes, a lot of voters are skeptical of government,” Johnston said. “The one thing they will all agree on is that the single most important function of government is supporting a high-quality K-12 education system.”

The Secretary of State’s Office has 30 days from petition drop-off to determine whether the campaign has gathered the 86,105 valid signatures needed to place the initiative on the November ballot.