Senator wants school funds on state ballot

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 5:23 PM

DENVER — Saying Colorado schoolchildren “can no longer wait,” a state senator filed a ballot initiative Monday to temporarily increase sales and income taxes for schools.

The initiative by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, would take both taxes to their rates of a decade ago, 5 percent for income and 3 percent for sales. The increases would expire after three years.

Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed large cuts to K-12 schools that — combined with cuts proposed by former Gov. Bill Ritter — would amount to $500 per student.

“If we are going to allow our children to compete in an increasingly competitive society, we’ve got to stop the bleeding now,” Heath said.

Before the recession in 2006, Colorado schools had $1,400 less per student than the U.S. average, Heath said.

His initiative will be run as a citizens campaign and not through the Legislature, but it didn’t stop Republicans from criticizing it.

“We are not going to raise taxes on the back of Colorado families,” said House Majority Leader Amy Stephens. “We are not going to tax our way into prosperity.”

Stephens said a better plan would be to cut taxes, including new taxes adopted last year on software and Internet sales.

Heath pointed to a Denver University study that legislators heard last Friday, which predicted that even with a booming economy, the state won’t get enough tax revenue to maintain its schools, prisons and roads.

Stephens said she does not believe the DU study. She also disagreed that Colorado’s public schools are poorly funded.

“Well-funded education’s in the eye of the beholder. We have excellent schools in Colorado,” Stephens said.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said he is concentrating on balancing this year’s budget while trying to minimize cuts to education, and he had no position on Heath’s initiative.

“I am focused on things we can control here at the Legislature,” Shaffer said.

Heath has the backing of nine of his fellow Democrats and at least one House Democrat, but he acknowledged he probably lacks the support to get his measure out of the Legislature. It won’t matter, though, since he will run the campaign as a citizen initiative, which will require him to gather some 70,000 signatures to place it on the November ballot.

Heath did not say whether he would use his personal wealth to finance the petition campaign. He will try to build support among businesses and unions in the next six weeks.

Heath’s initiative is the second one this year to ask voters for a tax increase. The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute has a plan to create a graduated income tax, with cuts for people at the bottom rung and a doubling of the income tax for the top earners.

Heath said he would talk to the initiative’s backers, and he predicts that only one of the plans will go to the ballot this fall.

Heath ran for governor in 2002 and lost to the Republican incumbent, Bill Owens. He was elected to the state Senate in 2008 and has focused on the fiscal condition of the state and its schools. He wanted to run this initiative in 2009, but he decided the time wasn’t right.

“I’ve sat here way too long and done nothing,” Heath said. “I think it’s time for us to at least have the courage to stand up and ask the citizens of the state what do they think.”

A panel of lawyers for the Legislature will review Heath’s initiative at a March 14 public hearing. If it passes legal muster, he will file it with the secretary of state, where a separate board would do another legal review.

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