Two advocates of “polar extremes” and two guys somewhat in the middle provided a lively discussion of Proposition 103 Friday for an audience at the University of Colorado Denver.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder

The leading backer and a top opponent made fairly familiar arguments while two other participants provided some interesting handicapping about the ballot measure’s prospects.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder and author of the ballot measure, gave his vigorous standard pitch about why he feels the five-year hike in state income and sales taxes is needed to provide additional funding for education at all levels.

“The sole purpose of this is to stop the bleeding,” said Heath, noting significant recent reductions for both K-12 schools and state colleges.

Penn Pfiffner, a former legislator who’s with the Independence Institute and chairs the opposition group Too Taxing for Colorado, argued that there’s no guarantee the additional revenue would go to education. “There’s only an intention” to do that. “There’s no accountability, no reporting,” he said.

Pfiffner touched on some other opposition critiques – it’s unwise to raise taxes in a bad economy and that spending doesn’t guarantee improved student achievement – but repeatedly returned to the argument that the increased revenue won’t necessarily go to schools.

Heath countered, “This money has got to go to education,” citing the provision of the proposal that reads: “All revenues raised by the increase in taxes … shall be appropriated by the General Assembly only for the costs of public education preschool through twelfth grade and public post-secondary education.”

Todd Snidow and Penn Pfiffner
Todd Snidow (left) and Penn Pfiffner

Pfiffner said, “This entire discussion presumes … there is no way we can cut anything.” Brandishing a copy of the Independence Institute’s “Citizens Budget,” he added, “There are alternatives to raising fees and taxes.” (Vouchers and tax credits are the cornerstones of that document’s suggestions for education funding.)

Eric Sondermann, a veteran political and communications consultant, told the crowd, “I feel like Admiral Stockdale,” referring to 1993 third-party vice presidential candidate James Stockdale, who famously said at a debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Then casting himself as “the hard bitten political analyst,” Sondermann said he disagreed with Pfiffner’s overall distaste for taxes but, “My question is one of timing.”

“The conventional wisdom is this is not the right time to do this,” he said, noting the weak economy and the lack of the well-funded business and political support behind Proposition 103. In contrast, he cited the example of Referendum C, the successful 2005 ballot measure that changed some provisions of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and increased state revenues.

Sondermann also said, “There’s no bipartisan cover this time,” recalling that Republican then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C. Current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has declined to take a public position on Proposition 103.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann

“The consequences of failure are high,” Sondermann warned, predicting that there will be little appetite for future school-funding proposals if Proposition 103 gets only about 40 percent of the vote. He did say, “you’ve promoted a discussion” for later if support for the measure is in the high 40s.

The last school funding measure on the statewide ballot, 2008’s Amendment 59, gained 45.7 percent of the vote.

Heath’s response to Sondermann was, “If I believed in the conventional wisdom, I wouldn’t be here.”

The fourth panelist, Todd Snidow, was the one who described Heath and Pfiffner as “polar extremes.” Snidow is senior vice president of George K. Baum & Co., a financial firm that advises school districts on bond issues and tax hikes.

Snidow is more in Heath’s camp – “It’s not a pretty picture” was his description of Colorado school funding. But he did say that among school districts seeking local tax increases this year, “There is some concern about ballot fatigue and ballot confusion.”

He said districts are being careful to avoid linking their proposals to Proposition 103. He also said the fact that the statewide tax hike would last for only five years “could be a game changer” for voters. (See this Education News Colorado story about this year’s local ballot proposals.)

The hour-long session was sponsored by the Buechner Institute of Governance at UCD’s School of Public Affairs. Todd Ely, a Buechner staffer, quizzed the panelists, followed by audience questions. The event, which attracted about 100 people, was sponsored by Snidow’s firm.

Pfiffner seemed to feel he was in unfriendly territory, saying at one point, “There are a lot people in this room whose living comes from the state” and referring to “a roomful of professors” at another. “I hope some of you will hear today … and not just say it’s all that conservative stuff,” he told the audience.

PROPOSITION 103

Provisions

  • State income tax rate would rise to 5 percent from 4.63 percent
  • State sales tax rate would go to 3 percent from 2.9 percent
  • New rates are same as those in effect in 1999
  • Higher rates would end in 2017

Revenue use

  • Proposition would raise an estimated $3 billion over five years
  • Additional revenue could be spent only on preschool programs, K-12 schools and state colleges and universities
  • Legislature would decide how to split revenues
  • Spending would have to be in addition to levels of 2011-12

Resources