Who Is In Charge

Testing the conventional wisdom

Will hard-nosed political assumptions be upended on Tuesday when the votes are counted on Proposition 103?

Election logoSen. Rollie Heath, father of the proposal to temporarily increase state tax rates to help fund education, thinks so. “I don’t have anybody now telling me we don’t have a chance,” the Boulder Democrat told Education News Colorado late last week.

Republican former legislator Victor Mitchell said he thinks Prop. 103 will lose, but he did use the phrase “cautiously optimistic” when saying making that prediction during an interview. Mitchell heads one opposition group, Save Colorado Jobs.

Veteran political observer Eric Sondermann said, “By every indication this thing should not be viable.” Sondermann is chairman of the Denver communications consulting firm SE2.

Reviewing the conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 goes something like this:

Voters won’t support a statewide tax increase in tough economic times.

Mitchell notes “low consumer and business confidence,” and opposition speakers have been stressing the economic argument during campaign appearances.

Last year voters around the state approved the vast majority of school district tax increases, despite an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent. The jobless rate is down to 8.3 percent now, but national consumer confidence is lower than it was last fall.

A tax increase can’t be passed without massive and visible business and political support.

Sondermann harks back to Referendum C, the 2005 ballot measure that modified the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to generate more state revenue but didn’t raise tax rates.

Ref. C proponents “had probably 20 times more money” than Heath, “they had a media drumbeat like this state hasn’t seen … they had a halfway decent economy … and they had a Republican governor providing a bipartisan veneer,” Sondermann noted. Then-Gov. Bill Owens supported Ref. C, which was placed on the ballot by the legislature and passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Eric Sondermann
Eric Sondermann
“None of those are present today; even the Democratic governor is not on board,” Sondermann noted.

There’s been much media chatter about Gov. John Hickenlooper’s refusal to take a stand of Prop. 103. He cites a 2010 campaign promise about not seeking or supporting a tax increase during his first year in office.

But Heath was happy with Hickenlooper’s recent announcement that he would veto any later effort to change the terms of Prop. 103 if it passes. (The proposal would change state law, not the constitution, so it could be legally changed by the legislature. Opponents have repeated raised that possibility on the campaign trail. The proposition’s language requires the additional funds raised the rate increase be devoted to public education, from preschool to universities. The legislature would decide how to split the money and couldn’t supplant existing education funding with the new money.)

And Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Hickenlooper’s No. 2 and the administration’s point man on education, repeatedly has made sympathetic noises about Prop. 103 but stopped short of an endorsement.

Part of the reason Heath hasn’t gained support from heavyweight business and political interests involves disagreement over the “big fix.”

That phrase refers to the conflicting constitutional provisions governing state and local spending, property tax limits and education funding that have left lawmakers with little room to maneuver in the current revenue squeeze.

A variety of civic, good government and business groups have been talking about a “big fix” but haven’t reached agreement on what it should look like and when it should be presented to voters.

Heath’s point, which he’s made repeatedly while campaigning, is that students and schools can’t wait after three years of significant education budget cuts. “While we are dealing with the big fix do we do nothing or do we do something? Give these kids a chance.” The Prop. 103 tax-rate hikes would be in effect for five years, enough time in Heath’s mind for interest groups to agree on the big fix.

Countering the conventional wisdom

Heath’s counter to the conventional wisdom comes from the impressions he’s gained stumping the state.

Barbara O'Brien, Rollie Heath
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, (right) talks about Proposition 103 on Oct. 27. Former Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is at the left, and Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus at center.
“We’ve been very pleased with the momentum it’s gathering,” he said late last week at a news conference intended to drum up a little last-minute coverage of the largely grassroots campaign. He said he sees “a sense or urgency about education” funding needs as he talks to people around the state.

Because of that, he said, “I think you’re going to see very different voting patterns” than Democrats voting for Prop. 103 and Republicans voting against.

Among the lineup of supporters at the event was education reform advocate and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “Doing reform well costs money,” she said.

Heath likes to cite the high number of signatures gathered to get the proposition on the ballot (142,824, well above the 86,105 required) as evidence of under-the-radar support.

He’s also fond of mentioning endorsements from small-town school boards and newspapers.

Straws in the wind lacking

Part of the reason so many observers are relying on the conventional wisdom about Prop. 103 is that the low-profile campaign doesn’t have most of the guideposts that accompany bigger campaigns – polls, intensive media coverage and the constant pounding of TV ads.

“It has been hard to handicap,” Sondermann admits.

Campaigners on both sides of the issue say they haven’t commissioned or know of any polls.

EdNews did find a poll released Oct. 11 by Public Policy Polling Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., a Democratic-oriented polling firm whose news release said, “This poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization.”

The survey found 45 percent of respondents in favor of raising state tax rates for education, 47 opposed and 7 not sure. (Read news release.)

The poll surveyed 510 Colorado voters Aug. 4-7, more than two weeks before Prop. 103 was certified for the ballot. The survey was an automated telephone poll and asked 20 questions on a variety of issues from approval of Hickenlooper and Colorado’s two U.S. senators to “Do you think prostitution should be legal or illegal?” Only one question was asked about education taxes, and it was 15th on the list.

Supporters of Prop. 103 have been running TV ads on five network stations and some cable channels in the Denver market. Heath said the campaign is designed so that an individual viewer will see the ad 10-12 times.

Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Victor Mitchell of Save Colorado Jobs
Mitchell said opponents have been doing some radio ads. Part of the opposition campaign is a bit underground, being run by Compass Colorado, a new Republican-oriented effort run by Tyler Houlton, a former staffer for various Republican campaigns and officeholders.

Because of its particular non-profit status, Compass doesn’t have to report its spending to the Department of State.

Both supporters and opponents have done some automated telephone calls.

Total campaign spending as of Oct. 12 was just under $500,000, most of that by supporters. Campaign committees have to file a new report on Oct. 31.

For the most part, the campaigns have consisted of Heath, Mitchell and other speakers criss-crossing the state, talking to political and community groups, attending candidate forums and making the usual appearances on TV public affairs shows and before newspaper editorial boards.

There’s also been a modest level of online campaigning, with individual supporters and opponents airing their views on blogs on YouTube.

Will turnout matter?

Several observers think turnout could be key. As of Friday, 619,000 Colorado voters had turned in ballots, according to the Department of State.

Supporters think could turnout could reach a million and that might help them.

Sondermann takes an opposite view. “The huge variable here that that turnout is not only going to be sparse but it could be abysmal. That increases the possibility that something surprising could happen.”

He continued, “Higher turnout might not be Rollie’s ally here. … That’s supposition.” The key, Sondermann said, may be which counties have the highest turnouts.

A factor in turnout may be tax elections in local school districts. Forty bond and tax override proposals are on ballots in more than 30 districts around the state, totaling more than $560 million. (Prop. 103 would raise more than $500 in higher taxes every year.)

Heath acknowledged that some district officials were concerned that negative voter attitudes about Prop. 103 could hurt local proposals. Now, he said, “They understand if this doesn’t pass they’re going to be in the hole” financially.

A final thought

“If Rollie can get this thing passed, then all the conventional wisdom should be tossed out the window,” Sondermann said.

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

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, if there is community support, 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.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.