Who Is In Charge

Soda levy, other tax exemption bills pass

The Senate Wednesday gave final approval to nine bills that are projected to raise about $148 million in revenue for the battered state treasury.

The measures are backed by education groups because they believe cuts to state support of K-12 education will be deeper without the additional revenue. Even with the additional money, schools are facing cuts of at least $350 million in 2010-11.

The proposal of greatest interest to the public probably is House Bill 10-1191, which would eliminate a sales tax exemption on some soft drinks and candy.

Debate over the tax package has been partisan, ideological and very prolonged in committee rooms and on the floors of the House and Senate. The Senate took most of Wednesday for final passage, which is swift and routine for most bills. Democrats have argued that the bills, which repeal various tax exemptions, are a modest imposition on business to help maintain state services.

Minority Republicans believe that raising taxes is the wrong thing to do in tough economic times and also is unconstitutional. (Democrats are relying on a 2009 Colorado Supreme Court decision about the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights as the legal justification for changing the tax policies without voter approval.)

Some bills require House-Senate agreement on amendments, but the package basically is on its way to the desk of Gov. Bill Ritter, who proposed the package in the first place.

The governor and Democratic leaders have been pushing for enactment of the package by March 1 so that some revenue would be available for the current 2009-10 budget year as well as in 2010-11. (State budget years end June 30 and being on July 1.)

Republicans have warned that some of taxes are unenforceable and that the bills could be challenged in court.

In addition to soda and candy, the measures, House Bills 10-1189 through 1196 and 1199, change tax exemptions for direct mail advertising materials, energy used in industry, software, some online sales, food containers and pesticides, plus tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles and operating losses.

Speaking of tough issues

There’s another big bill that legislative leaders are trying to push through by March 1. That’s Senate Bill 10-001, the complex proposal to make the Public Employees’ Retirement Association solvent over the next 30 years. All teachers and many other education employees are covered by PERA.

The bill is wickedly complex, but its major element is reducing benefits for retirees, who now receive annual 3.5 percent benefit increases. (That provision often is called a “cost of living” benefit, but it isn’t tied to inflation or any other external indicator.) The bill would cut that benefit to 0 percent for one year and then basically set it as 2 percent thereafter. PERA says cutting that benefit is the major financial piece needed to set the system on the path to solvency.

The measure has the backing of the Democratic leadership, key Republicans and a coalition of employee groups. But, large numbers of individual retirees have complained loudly.

The bill has passed the Senate, and the House Finance Committee took its first cut at the measure Wednesday. The panel took testimony well into the evening (after having started at 1:30 p.m.), and then passed the bill to the House Appropriations Committee.

What’s important about March 1? That’s when the 2010 3.5 percent retiree increase is supposed to kick in. If the bill is passed and signed before that date, PERA will save big money to put in the bank, and retirees will be getting less money.

Higher ed panel having a hard time

Colorado’s colleges and universities usually get the worst of budget cuts, given that they don’t have the constitutional or other protections that shield other programs – sometimes – from cuts.

Higher education funding for this year and next is being patched together with federal stimulus funds, but the system faces cuts of more than $100 million in 2011-12.

Financial issues are one of the things being studied as part of the just-started higher education strategic planning effort (get details here).

The “sustainability” subcommittee assigned to consider finances also is supposed to come up with short-term ideas to help the higher ed system in 2011-12, ideas that can perhaps be proposed to the 2010 legislature.

Legislative leaders are holding up consideration of a proposal, Senate Bill 10-003, to see if the subcommittee comes up with anything. That bill would give colleges and universities greater flexibility in financial practices, student aid, construction and other areas. There’s also talk of legislation that would allow colleges to attain “authority” status and almost totally free them from state control. (The best example of an authority is University Hospital, which is a state entity but self-governing, and it receives no tax funding.)

The subcommittee held its second meeting Wednesday, but member were no closer to any specific proposals than they were a week ago.

“So where are we?” asked Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, as the sustainability group neared the end of its two-hour meeting.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere,” said Dick Monfort, a co-chair of the overall strategic plan effort and a member of the subcommittee.

The panel agreed to meet again Feb. 22 and discuss whether there are elements of the authority model that could be used to give colleges some short-term financial relief.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.