Voters will need a clear, understandable message to gain their support for the proposed $950 million K-12 tax increase, members of a key education advisory panel have told Sen. Mike Johnston, the plan’s leading backer.

Sen. Mike Johnston (right) makes a point as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia listens.
Sen. Mike Johnston (right) makes a point as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia listens.

Johnston met Thursday with the Education Leadership Council, which advises Gov. John Hickenlooper on education issues. The session came just four days ahead of the deadline for submitting the petitions necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The always-optimistic Johnston was bullish about potential voter support and fundraising. He told the group that private polling shows the measure with support of 52 to 54 percent. On fundraising, he said, “Our target is to raise $6 to $10 million.”

The appointed council, which includes education and business leaders plus assorted civic figures, was a friendly audience for Johnston, and much of the discussion focused on building public understanding and what it will take to pass the plan.

“There’s a lot in this that is hard to explain,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the group. “That allows people to misstate what’s in it.”

The ballot measure would raise state income tax rates to 5 percent on income up to $75,000 a year. Income above that amount would be taxed at 5.9 percent. The current individual tax rate is 4.63 percent on all income. The measure is needed to fund Senate Bill 13-213, a much more complicated law that would change the formula for funding school districts and direct more money to preschool and full-day kindergarten, as well as to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students and English-language learners.

Johnston, who’s been crisscrossing the state since well before SB 13-213 was passed, said, “There were some misunderstandings” but believes citizens are beginning to understand the plan. “For the most part we’ve gotten a great deal of excitement.”

He added, “There’s going to be massive outreach operation in the next three months,”

Nate Easley, executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, said voters will want to know if raising taxes will lead to better education outcomes, and “what’s in it for me.”

Johnston said the campaign will include customized fact sheets that will let voters know what the new system will mean for individual schools districts.

“I think the challenge is the people who don’t have kids,” Easley said.

Johnston replied that the campaign will need to make the case that an improved education system is necessary for future economic growth.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the campaign needs a clear, simple message. “There’s a lot of information. We’re going to need a focused, factual ‘here’s-what-it-does’ [message],” she said.

Noting that many business leaders seem ambivalent about the proposal, Stevenson said, “Chambers of commerce are going to need some personal attention” and that there needs to be “a particular campaign for small-business people.”

Concerns have been raised about the proposal’s impact on business because many small business owners pay their business taxes on their individual returns. (Johnston said the two-step tax rate proposed in the ballot measure actually places less of a burden on business than one of the alternatives, a flat percentage increase in taxes on all.)

Garcia noted that the group’s discussion indicated that even the well informed have questions about the proposal. “If we aren’t well informed enough to correct some of the misconceptions, we have no chance,” he warned.

Johnston took on some of those criticisms in his remarks.

On the two-step tax rate, he said, “We very intentionally built the tax structure to meet the objections we heard.”

He also said the proposal would provide a more certain source of school funding than the current constitutional provision that requires base K-12 spending to increase annually based on enrollment and population.

The ballot measure and SB 13-213 would devote 43 percent of annual state revenues to schools plus include a reserve fund to cover spending in years when revenues decline.

Some Republican critics of the plan warn that the legislature could use the new revenues to shore up the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system.

Johnston said the provisions of SB 13-213 would prevent that. “There are belts and suspenders and duct tape all over this” to ensure funding isn’t diverted.

The Denver Democrat also dismissed as “pure fiction” concerns that some districts actually would lose funding under the plan.

Contributions to backers top $1 million

Colorado Commits to Kids, the main campaign committee backing the tax increase, on Thursday reported it has raised $1.08 million since it launched in June. Nearly $740,000 was raised in July, according to a monthly report filed with the secretary of state.

Notable contributions included $250,000 from David Merage, a businessman and philanthropist; $250,000 for Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker, a longtime donor to Democratic Party and liberal causes; $50,000 from the advocacy group Stand for Children; an additional $150,000 from Gary Community Investment Co. and an additional $10,000 from Dan Ritchie, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The Gary firm and Ritchie also contributed in June. (See the full list of July contributors here, and read this EdNews story about the group’s June financial report.)

(Three other groups, one in support and two opposed, reported no July activity.)

The committee’s main spending in July was the $491,198 paid to FieldWorks, the campaign firm that is gathering petition signatures for the measure. The company was paid $75,000 in June.

Colorado Commits face a Monday deadline to file at least 86,105 signatures with the Department of State. The campaign hasn’t commented on how the signature gathering has gone, but observers expect it will have more than enough signatures, given the amount spent with FieldWorks, which is using paid petition circulators.

Groups such as the Colorado Education Association and Great Education Colorado have been gathering signatures using volunteer circulators.

A different spin on polling

While Johnston was putting a positive spin on polling numbers, the opposition group Compass Colorado issued a news release citing an April poll with a different take. “Not only do voters oppose the two-tiered tax increase system of Initiative 22, they strongly oppose the initiative across all ages and genders,” the group said.

Compass, which has Republican ties, is organized in such a way that it’s not required to report contributions and spending. It actively opposed Proposition 103 in 2011, a different education tax plan defeated by voters. (Read the Compass news release.)