From the Statehouse

Voters have a habit of rejecting state education taxes

If Colorado voters this November approve a $1 billion income tax increase to fund schools, they will break a string of defeats for similar measures stretching back decades.

Since the early 1990s, voters have approved only two ballot measures that affected education revenues – and neither of those included a general tax increase. Over the same period, voters defeated six K-12 or higher education funding measures.

And voters haven’t been kind to other kinds of tax increases, changes in debt limits or tweaks to existing financial provisions of the state constitution. Seven of those measures have been defeated, and only three have passed. (Article continues below timeline.)

Ballot measure timeline

See full history of ballot measures.

“It’s a challenging list,” said Wade Buchanan, president of the progressive-leaning Bell Policy Center and a long-time observer of state fiscal issues and battles.

To set some context for this fall’s expected campaign to pass a tax increase for K-12, Education News Colorado reviewed the history of ballot measures back to the early 1990s and interviewed a variety of political observers and operatives.

The tax increase is needed to pay for Senate Bill 13-213, the recent law that would create a new method for distributing school funding. No specific measure has yet been proposed for this November. The civic group Colorado Forum has filed proposals but has yet to decide which one it will attempt to get on the ballot through a petition campaign. Various business interests are still debating which of the 16 tax plans to support.

Most of those interviewed basically agreed with veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson, who said, “I think it’s going to be very difficult” to pass a measure. But communications consultant Eric Sondermann added, “You can pass these things. It’s not impossible.”

Patterns in the past

“We have kind of a tough record here when it comes to pitching tax measures statewide,” noted Charlie Brown, director of the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University. “Nothing of a huge magnitude has passed.”

Wade Buchanan / File photo

Political observers cite a variety of reasons why some measures passed and others didn’t.

“Most of them didn’t attract the kind of money you need” for the campaign, said Buchanan.

Buchanan and others said that lack of campaign support may have doomed 2011’s Proposition 103, which would have added $536 million in temporary income and sales tax increase for education, and Amendment 59 in 2008, which would have diverted some tax refunds into education.

Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs, who has been advising Colorado Forum, agreed. The 103 campaign didn’t have enough funding “to the point that they saturated the market,” he said. (Melanson also ran one of the few successful tax-increase campaigns, Initiative 35 in 2004.)

Some measures that passed “flew under the radar” and were approved without much opposition because public attention was focused on higher-profile measures in those election years, Sondermann said. Amendment 50, which passed in 2008 and expanded limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges, is an example.

Statewide ballot proposals have a handicap that often doesn’t affect local tax proposals, such as school bond issues and tax overrides, which voters have a history of supporting.

“The more tangible the issue, the better chance you have of engaging voters,” Buchanan said. “When you go to the state level you get into abstractions. … It’s harder for people to know what you’re talking about.”

Charlie Brown and Sondermann agreed with that analysis. “Coloradans want to know what they’re buying,” said Sondermann.

Fred Brown, retired political columnist and reporter, cited metro-area voter support of stadium taxes, the cultural facilities levy and FasTracks as examples. “People knew exactly what they were getting for their money,” he said.

Is Ref C relevant?

When people talk about the proposed K-12 ballot measure, the conversation often turns to Referendum C.

Referendum C allowed the state to retain and spend for five years revenue that would have otherwise had to have been refunded to citizens under terms of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of tax increases and sets ceilings on revenue collections. Ref C, as it’s commonly called, didn’t raise tax rates. It passed with a 52 percent yes vote.

The measure, placed on the ballot by the legislature, was supported by Republican Gov. Bill Owens and was backed by a bipartisan coalition that included large segments of the business community. It was also promoted by a well-funded campaign. Backers of more education spending often say their plan needs the same “broad coalition” that supported Ref C.

Buchanan notes that Ref C provided about as much revenue as the education ballot measure proposes. But, he said, “There’s a big difference” between letting state government keep revenue and “telling people yes, this does raise your taxes.”

Katy Atkinson / File photo
Katy Atkinson / File photo

Atkinson agreed, noting the Ref C ballot language began with the words “Without raising taxes …”

She also said Owens’ support “gave Republicans permission to support” Ref C, and that there’s no high-profile GOP support this year for an education tax increase. Fred Brown noted that in 2005 many other Republicans opposed the measure.

Veteran political strategist Mike Dino said, “I do think Colorado voters have been accustomed to lower taxes for a long time” and that “we’re not in as good an economic time as with Ref C.”

Ref C passed with only about 52 percent of the vote, and a companion debt proposal failed.

Prospects for the campaign

“I’m sure they’re aware this is a tough uphill battle,” Charlie Brown said of the prospective campaign.

Many observers think campaign funding will be a key factor.

1992 a landmark?
The 1992 election saw the passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which in many ways has set the course for subsequent ballot measures. That year also saw the defeat of an education-funding-and-reform plan backed by then-Gov. Roy Romer.
Ross Perot
Ross Perot

Fred Brown, retired Denver Post political columnist and reporter, blames it all on maverick third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot.“I think 1992 was a bizarre year because there was such a huge turnout, and it was driven by Ross Perot’s candidacy, ” Brown said. “Anti-government types were energized by the Perot candidacy.”

Brown says that aided the passage of TABOR and Amendment 2 (an anti-gay measure later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the defeat the schools proposal. “Neither one of those measures would have passed, and maybe the school tax would have passed” without Perot voters, Brown speculated.

“It’s all about how much money you have,” said Buchanan.

Atkinson said the minimum for a campaign is probably $4 million. Sondermann cited $7 million as a reasonable amount, “but it’s probably closer to $10 million.”

Melanson wouldn’t venture a guess on an amount, but he did say, “You have to be funded to the degree that people understand what’s in the measure.”

Observers are of different minds about how voters will swing this year. Turnout usually is lower in off-year elections, and Sondermann noted that voters tend to skew older in those years. (The only measure currently set for the November ballot is a legislature proposal to set taxes on recreational marijuana.)

Others think that pro-education voters will turn out this year, motivated by past district budget cuts and the prospect of future K-12 revenue increases. Supporters are counting on that happening.

“The mood is certainly pro-education,” said Fred Brown.

“I think the political climate has changed,” he continued. “Colorado is more liberal now than it was 20 years ago, so that might make a difference. … But Colorado is more of an independent-minded state. It’s hard to predict what voters will do.”

Melanson sounded a similar note, saying, “The Colorado electorate is a younger electorate now, even in odd-year elections. … The conservative side of the scale was smaller in 2011 than it was in 2005.”

He said his firm started doing research shortly after Proposition 103 was defeated in 2011. “The outlook of Colorado was considerably more pessimistic at that time than it is now.”

But Atkinson noted that some segments of the Democratic Party base don’t necessarily support tax increases.

Gov. John Hickenlooper invariably comes up when people talk about the prospective ballot measure.

The governor’s involvement “will be important to the effort,” Dino said. “We do have a governor who, as mayor, had a lot of good results from putting things on the ballot that had failed in Denver before.” But, Dino added, “There hasn’t necessarily been a commitment by the governor as to the amount of time he’ll spend.”

Hickenlooper has said he’ll campaign for the eventual K-12 measure. But as recently as Wednesday he said he remains “ambivalent” about which variation of the proposed tax increase he prefers.

Atkinson said the governor won’t be the determining factor. “He’s not enough to push it over the top.”

Summing up, schools advocate Lisa Weil said, “I think there’s no question that this is a difficult task,” adding, “The wind is more at our back than it has been for a long time.” Weil is policy director for Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that supports increased school funding.

Is there enough time?

Some education advocates have been nervous about the fact that a final version of the ballot measure hasn’t been selected.

But most observers feel the campaign will be able to gather the petition signatures needed by the Aug. 5 deadline – particularly if it uses paid petition circulators.

And there’s time to get the campaign message out – “with money,” Sondermann said.

“I think they have time with the message side of it,” Atkinson agreed.

Roll call of ballot measures

Key: Initiative refers to a measure placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A Referendum is a measure proposed by the legislature. Both types can change the constitution or state law.

Crucial measures

Six measures passed over the last three decades have shaped the landscape for government finance.

1982 – Referendum 1: The so-called Gallagher Amendment set new rules and ratios for assessment of property, has had the effect of reducing revenue from residential property taxes and, in combination with TABOR, shifted the bulk of school funding to the state.

1992 – Initiative 6: Known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), this constitutional amendment requires voter approval of tax increases, sets limits on annual government revenue increases and requires refunds of surplus revenues. At the local level, voters in many schools districts have opted out of some TABOR provisions, as the amendment allows, but voter approval of tax increases still is required.

Initiative 8: The Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) amendment reserves most state lottery revenues for wildlife conservation and open space, locking up revenues that are used for education or general purposes in many other states.

1994 – Referendum A: This constitutional amendment restricted future ballot measures to a “single subject.” Proposed partly in response to TABOR, the measure actually has made it harder for TABOR critics to change that amendment and also had spawned legal quibbling over many proposals.

2000 – Initiative 23: Universally known as Amendment 23, this requires base K-12 spending to increase by enrollment and inflation every year. (For the first 10 years it also required annual 1 percent increases on top of that.) A23 is as beloved by most education advocates as TABOR is by many conservatives.

2005 – Referendum C: This measure allowed the state to retain and spend TABOR surpluses for five years. It also changed some TABOR provisions that drove state revenue limits down in recessionary periods but didn’t allow them to recover when the economy improved.

Tax, revenue, spending and debt measures

This is a list of other revenue and spending-related measures on the ballot in recent decades, including both education-related and non-education proposals. Measures in green passed; measures in red were defeated. Vote percentages are rounded off.

2011

Proposition 103 – $536 million temporary income and sales tax increase for education. Lost 36 percent to 63 percent

2008

Amendment 50 – Expansion of limited stakes gambling with some revenues going to community colleges. Passed 58-41

Amendment 51 – $186 million sales tax increase to fund services for the developmentally disabled. Lost 37-62

Amendment 58 – $321 million increase in severance taxes, part of which would have been used for college scholarships. Lost 41-58

Amendment 59 – Would have diverted TABOR refunds to K-12 education. Lost 45-54

2005

Referendum C –Passed 52-47

Referendum D – Would have allowed the state to issue debt for school, college and highway construction. Lost 49-50

2004

Initiative 35 – A $175 million tobacco tax increase to fund children’s and other health programs. Passed 61-38

2003

Initiative 32 – Proposed changes in the Gallagher Amendment. Lost 22-77

2001

Initiative 26 – Would have allowed use of $50 million in excess state revenues for planning a monorail system along I-70. Lost 34-65

2000

Amendment 23 – Passed 52-47

Referendum F – Would have allowed use of up to $50 million a year in excess revenues to fund school math and science grants. Lost 44-55

1999

Referendum A – Allowed increase in debt limit (no tax increase) for transportation projects. Passed 61-38

1998

Referendum B – Would have retained up to $200 million a year in excess revenues to fund school and college construction and transportation. Lost 38-61

1997

Initiative 1 – A $178 million tax increase for transportation. Lost 15-84

1994

Initiative 1 – A $132 million increase in tobacco taxes. Lost 38-61

Referendum A – The single-subject amendment passed 65-34

1993

Referendum A – A proposed $13.1 million annual tax increase on “tourist-related” items. Lost 44-55

1992

Initiative 1 – TABOR passed 53-46

Initiative 6 – Proposed a 1 percent increase in sales tax rate to fund schools and would have required setting standards and assessments for schools. Lost 45-54

Initiative 8 – Creation of Great Outdoors fund passed 58-41

1982

Referendum 1 – Gallagher, passed 65-34

Full history of Colorado ballot measures

More grades?

Schools with lots of transfer students say A-F labels don’t fit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Schools with large numbers of kids who transfer in or out should get an extra grade from Indiana’s A-F system, a legislative committee said Thursday.

The proposal, backed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee, would give schools a second A-F grade based just on the scores of students who have attended for at least a year.

The goal is to account for schools with “high mobility,” common in poor neighborhoods where families move frequently and kids sometimes change schools several times in a single school year. When kids change schools, their test scores often sink. Lawmakers argued the schools where they end up on test day can be unfairly saddled with a low grade that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at the school.

Even so, the schools will still be judged the same as all schools in Indiana on their first A-F grade.

The proposal was added as an amendment to House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. The bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

The amended bill would require the Indiana State Board of Education to first define a “high-mobility” school. Then, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the board would assign those schools both the typical grade based primarily on state tests and a second grade that only considers the test and other academic data of students who have attended the school for one year or more.

The second grade could not be used by the state board to make decisions about state sanctions, the bill says. But it would help parents and others better understand the circumstances at the school, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the education committee.

“Especially in our urban centers, there are several schools … that have very high mobility rates,” Behning said. “We could all recognize that if you’re being moved from school A to school B to school C to school D in a year, it’s going to be very difficult for your performance to be where it needs to be.”

The bill also makes a similar change to high school graduation rates, which would help Indiana better comply with new federal law, Behning said. The bill would alter the graduation rate calculation so that students who drop out would only count in a school’s rate if they attended that school for at least 90 percent of the school year. Otherwise, their graduation data gets counted at the previous school they attended for the longest time.

Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, one of the largest online schools in the state, testified in support of the bill. She said the graduation rate change and second letter grade better reflect the work they’re doing with students.

“We really believe that if we can keep a student, we can help them,” Brown said.

Virtual schools have performed poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Indiana Connections Academy sees about 20 to 25 percent of students come and go each year, Brown said. Other virtual schools, such as Hoosier Academies, have reported more than double that rate.

Although the rates for individual schools could vary widely, Beech Grove schools had the highest district mobility rate in 2015 in Marion County, where 20.1 percent of students left a Beech Grove school to go outside the district, according to state data. Franklin Township had the lowest, with 8.5 percent. Generally, transfer within districts was much lower.

In IPS, the rate was 18.4 percent for students leaving to attend a school in another district, and 8.2 percent of students left their home school to attend another in IPS.

Brown said she thinks the second school grade could help all schools that see high turnover, but it also could dispel some misinformation about what virtual schools are for — it’s not a “magic pill” for kids who are far behind, she said, a scenario she encounters frequently.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the kid,” Brown said. “And it’s not best to send a student to another school with two weeks left in the semester expecting a miracle to happen.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.