2013 Ballot Questions- Part 4: Colorado's Tax Increase for Education

No matter the outcome of the vote, this will set the record for the most expensive ballot initiative effort in history. Using a metric called CPRS- Cost Per Required Signature- in getting a question on the ballot, this effort- Amendment 66- cost $11.05 per signature. That is $951,460 spent for the required 86,105 signatures. The previous record was held by Proposition 30 in California in 2012- also a tax increase for education effort- at $10.86 per signature. The national average in 2012 was $4.06. And there is good reason: when talking tax increases less people are inclined to sign the petition thus requiring a greater effort- financial and otherwise- in obtaining those necessary signatures.

Amendment 66 would alter the state income tax considerably in anticipation of implementing Colorado Senate Bill 213 which, among other things, changes the way and methods schools are funded in the state. In fact, SB-213 states that should the ballot measure fail, the entire bill is nullified. Thus, the state legislature needs voters to approve this measure if they are to proceed with enactment of the bill. If not, it is back to the drawing board.

Colorado’s current personal income tax is a flat 4.63% tax rate. This amendment would change that. For those making less than $75,000 annually, the rate would increase to 5% while for those making more than $75,000 the rate would jump to 5.9%. As nationally Obama rails about the rich paying their fair share, proponents of this effort are using the exact same argument. Like the national scene, 26% of Colorado’s income tax filers would fall above the $75,000 threshold and they currently account for 75% of the revenue Colorado collects from their personal income tax. Assuming the higher earners do not head for better climes, going from 4.63% to 5.9% would skew that contribution even stronger.

This comes down to one thing: selling the Colorado electorate on the notion that throwing more money at education will necessarily improve public education. This fallacy has been proven wrong time and again in many states and nationally. Thus far, if polls are any indication, the people are not buying this argument. A poll released on September 20, 2013 by Magellan Strategies indicates disapproval of the measure 44-38%. Obviously there a lot of undecideds still out there, so these totals can change.

Most of the proponents are a who’s who of liberal/Democratic benefactors. Governor Hicklenhooper is behind the measure as are most local education associations and the teacher unions. Conservative groups and individuals and tax groups are generally against it. At the forefront of the opposition is the group Coloradans Against Using Kids as Pawns which argues that the estimated $1 billion annual tax increase will do little to improve educational outcomes in Colorado. Perhaps most damning to the effort is this statement by US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan: “If voters pass amendment 66, Colorado will become the educational model for every other state to follow.” Just a personal thought here, but anything anyone in the Obama administration endorses- especially someone like Arne Duncan- voters should approach the question with a healthy dose of skepticism and suspicion.

There is also the ancillary fear that should this be passed, Colorado’s higher earners will simply leave the state. Some of this phenomena was seen in my home state, New Jersey, after tax increases targeting higher earners were previously enacted. In fact, New Jersey may be a perfect example of how not to fund schools and the proposed Colorado changes look suspiciously like those in New Jersey and one fears this is the road down which Colorado is headed if this initiative passes.

In New Jersey, the funding scheme is largely in response to a state supreme court ruling- the Abbott decision. As a result, the bulk of state spending on education goes to these specified school districts. Most analysis of the funding scheme indicates that the program has been an absolute disaster over the years. Despite the millions of dollars dedicated to these traditionally low-income districts, there has been no improvement in student achievement. There may be some “success” stories, but a deeper reading indicates that they are either short-lived, grade specific for some reason, or because the local school district enacted some reform unrelated to funding.

And that is the main problem with this initiative. It simply perpetuates and codifies the notion that increased spending on education necessarily equates with increased student performance. Study after study and simple anecdotal evidence proves this to be false. It is the liberal solution to everything- more money will solve the problem. All the money in the world is not going to change the fact that many students from low-income families return to a single-parent household every night and that this parent, for whatever reason, may not view their child’s education at the top of their priority list. All the money in the world cannot create discipline in the classroom or change a child’s attitude towards education. These are things that have to be learned in the home and schools should not be expected to become de facto parents to students.

There is also the fear that any money raised from this initiative will actually not enter the classroom, but be partially diverted to teacher pension and health benefit plans. In fact, these two issues plus teacher salaries are the primary reasons for K-12 educational inflation. Enacting a tax increase to improve schools and then using it for items that in no way improve those schools- only the paychecks and benefit plans of teachers- is yet another reason to vote against this effort.

The initiative and accompanying bill would also remove a certain degree of local control of education and place it in the hands of the state government which is further removed from the actual problem. With money comes strings attached and those strings will originate in Denver with policies and programs that in no way benefit schools far removed from the state’s capital. It will create one-size-fits-all solutions to be adopted at the local level in exchange for state funds. This has been the trend whenever these programs are enacted and is very evident at the national level.

Yet another reason to vote against the effort is that it may very well violate Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Passed in 1992, this current effort seems to go against that law. The ballot measure specifies: “Allowing all tax revenues attributable to this measure to be collected and spent without future voter approval.” To assert a right to future tax increases “without voter approval” would reduce TABOR to words on a piece of paper. And what would stop the legislature in the future in other areas unrelated to education from doing the same thing?

Interestingly- in an unrelated area- this initiative required 86,105 signatures to be placed on the ballot. The professional company that handled that task- Fieldworks- obtained over 160,000 signatures. However, after the secretary of state reviewed the signatures, only 89,820 signatures were found to be valid. Hence, close to half the signatures obtained were invalid which begs the question: where did they come from? It would appear that Fieldworks has adopted some tactics from ACORN. But, I digress…

The biggest reason to vote against this ballot initiative is that it simply encapsulates wealth redistribution in its rawest form. One study shows that three Colorado counties- Jefferson, Douglas and Jefferson- would pay 32.2% of the new tax revenue collected under this scheme, but receive back only 17.7% of the funds. Yet another study showed that these three counties account for 20.9% of all school children in Colorado, but would receive 15% of the new tax revenue funds. Conversely, the Denver and Aurora school districts account for 14.3% of all Colorado school children, but they would receive 22% of the new funds. The average median income in the three counties that stand to lose under this scheme is $65,400 (and 90.6% white) while the average median income in the two targeted areas- Denver and Aurora- that stand to benefit is $46,000 (and 65% white). This is raw, naked wealth redistribution no matter how you look at it. It is the same thing done legislatively which was done judicially in New Jersey with miserable results.

Conservatives and liberals agree that our educational system needs improvement. But, there are serious differences on how we get there. This proposal goes full throttle down the failed liberal road.

Suggestion to Colorado voters: Vote “NO” on Amendment 66 and demand real educational reform.

Next: The Texas Judicial Sanctions Initiative