Colorado’s $855 million school funding gap may well grow in 2016-17, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday in remarks to a group that advocates for improved school support.

“We might not be able to decrease the negative factor, and there might be an increase,” the governor said, referring to the 2016-17 budget plan he has to submit to the legislature by Nov. 1.

Hickenlooper spoke to the annual fundraising luncheon for Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that long has been critical of the negative factor, the formula the legislature uses to control school spending and balance the state budget.

The Colorado Supreme Court just last week rejected the case of Dwyer v. State, a constitutional challenge to the negative factor. That decision disheartened many education advocates.

Hickenlooper’s remarks were not surprising, given the court ruling and a variety of complicated budget challenges facing the state. But it was the first time the governor publicly gave that warning to a large education audience.

The governor’s comment was made in the context of brief, campaign-style remarks during which he pushed for a change that would ease pressure on the state’s revenue ceiling and dismissed Republican criticism of two administration transportation initiatives.

Negative factor history
  • Fiscal year 15-16: $855.1M
  • FY14-15: $880M
  • FY13-14: $1.004B
  • FY12-13: $1.001B
  • FY11-12: $774M
  • FY10-11: $381M
  • FY09-10: $130M

The governor talked mainly about the hospital provider fee, an assessment levied on hospitals and used to gain additional federal Medicaid funding. While it isn’t a general tax, the fee counts against the annual revenue limit set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. That limit has been exceeded, triggering taxpayer refunds for as long as three years.

Hickenlooper was unsuccessful in persuading the 2015 legislature to reclassify the fee so that it wouldn’t count against the revenue limit. He’s expected to try again during the 2016 session.

“If we can get that reclassified it doesn’t solve the education and transportation funding problems, but it gives us some breathing room,” Hickenlooper said.

School district lobbyists are talking about allying with transportation interests to pressure lawmakers to reclassify the provider fee next year. That may be hard, given split partisan control of the legislature and the fact that 2016 is an election year.

The governor spoke for about eight minutes, didn’t take questions and left immediately after speaking. His cautionary remarks didn’t dampen the rhetoric of some speakers who followed him.

“Please understand that education was dealt another drastic blow” by the latest Supreme Court decision, said Buffalo district Superintendent Rob Sanders.

“When the Supreme Court rules that our system is thorough and uniform, I would beg to differ,” said Bethune Superintendent Shila Adolf. “There is no reason we should be sending the message that we can’t afford good education.”

The state constitution calls for a “thorough and uniform” education system. Many educators believe the current funding system violates that.

Boulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo
Boulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger was the most blunt.

“The reality is unless this state steps up and provides adequate funding for public schools, we are going to lose our public schools. … Public education in this state is dying a slow death,” he said.

Messinger praised Hickenlooper’s stand on the provider fee. “We are going to get it done, and then we’re going” after TABOR, he said.

“We’re going to need to get TABOR out of the way” to improve school funding, he said. Because TABOR is part of the constitution, repealing or modifying it would require a statewide vote.

Denver Deputy Mayor Cary Kennedy, a member of Great Education’s advisory council, said, “That Supreme Court ruling has motivated me more than ever” to push for increased school funding. Kennedy was the author of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that requires base school funding increase annually based on enrollment and inflation.

Many advocates believe the high court’s Dwyer decision essentially gutted Amendment 23.

Learn more about school finance in Chalkbeat’s archives