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.


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


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


Referendum C –Passed 52-47

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


Referendum 1 – Gallagher, passed 65-34

Full history of Colorado ballot measures

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”