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school bus. Photo: public domain/Dori school bus. Photo: public domain/Dori  

Battle lines drawn over proposed $1 billion Colorado tax increase

Greg Campbell
Contributor

Supporters of a $950 million statewide tax increase to fund education turned in nearly double the number of signatures required to place it on Colorado ballots.

But a bipartisan opposition group was quick to decry the effort as too much of a burden on taxpayers for too little assurances that the money will be spent as promised.

Supporters turned in more than 160,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office Monday, unloading boxes of petitions from a school bus to underscore the tax’s purpose. Backers need 86,105 of them to be valid in order for it to appear in the ballot.

“We got a lot of people involved and enthusiastic,” supporter Gail Klapper of the Colorado Forum told the Denver Post. “[We] didn’t have a lot of trouble getting people to sign the petitions.”

Voter approval of the tax increase, called Initiative 22, is required to trigger spending on a whole slate of education reforms, including full-day kindergarten, programs for special-needs and gifted and talented students and for education innovation reforms, among other measures.

If passed, the initiative would change Colorado’s state income tax from a flat 4.63 percent to a tiered system in which households that earn less than $75,000 will be taxed a 5 percent rate and those over $75,000 at 5.9 percent.

Members of the opposition coalition, called Coloradoans for Real Education Reform (CRER), held a press conference later Monday to encourage a no vote on the initiative.

“Coloradoans don’t have an appetite in this fragile economy for a $1 billion tax increase,” said Kelly Maher, the executive director of Compass Colorado, one of the organizations behind CRER.

Speakers included Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, who called the initiative a “shell game” that lacks transparency, accountability and safeguards to ensure the money isn’t spent on expenses other than voters might intend.

He’s specifically worried that money will be spent backfilling pension obligations in the public employees retirement fund. Although the fund’s rate of return exceeded expectations this year, Stapleton has long beat the drum that it’s based on unrealistic projections that will leave taxpayers footing the bill.

He said lawmakers were unwilling to put a single line in the 160 page bill forbidding money raised from the tax to be spent on pensions.

“To me, that’s an implicit admission” that funds will be spent on the retirement fund, he said.

“This is no way to run an education system and no way to improve the quality of Colorado schools.”

He was joined in his opposition by former Democratic lawmaker Bob Hagedorn, who has focused on educational issues since he was first appointed to the state legislature in 1993. Hagedorn said the Democratic-controlled legislature missed an opportunity to expand school choice, which he said is a proven method of increasing the quality of education.

Charter schools, he said, “are doing it cheaper [and] if not as good, better.”

He said the $950 million pricetag is too much for families and small businesses to bear.

“For the first time in my life, I’m opposing a school-related tax increase,” he said. “I believe the legislature should go back and try again.”

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