What Proposition CC would mean for Colorado schools, explained

Colorado voters face a decision this November that could send millions of additional dollars to the state’s schools in good economic times — or no money at all in down years — by doing away with tax refunds required under current law.

Instead of asking voters to raise taxes, Proposition CC asks voters to let the state keep all revenue from existing taxes. A third of this additional money would go to transportation, a third to higher education, and a third to K-12 education. Under current law, the state has to issue refunds whenever revenue goes above a cap dictated by population growth and inflation.

Proposition CC comes one year after Colorado voters rejected Amendment 73, a tax increase on higher earners and businesses that would have generated $1.6 billion for K-12 education. The proposition takes a very different approach to increasing funding for schools and would have a more modest impact on classroom dollars.

How much money are we talking about? That all depends on how the economy does, and the estimates have changed considerably since lawmakers first took up the idea. The estimates voters will see in their blue books are based on the June economic forecast from legislative analysts and predict schools would see an additional $103 million in 2020-21 and $114 million extra in 2021-22.

The most recent economic forecasts from September estimate schools would get anywhere from $180.6 million over the next three years in a more cautious forecast prepared by legislative analysts to $566.6 million over the same time period in a more optimistic forecast from the governor’s office.

Even the higher end represents less than 3% of the state’s $7 billion annual education budget, but it’s as much as 30% of the amount the state withholds from schools each year to pay for other budget priorities.

But if the economy enters another recession, there might not be any extra money at all some years.

Because the flow of money would be unpredictable, districts would only be able to use it on one-time expenses, such as curriculum, technology upgrades, and teacher bonuses or training.

Proponents are quick to say Proposition CC is not a comprehensive solution for the state’s school finance woes, but nonetheless call it a step in the right direction. The campaign slogan is: “Start Fixing Things.”

“This is a basic, simple way to keep resources collected through state taxes and make them available to the priorities of the voters of Colorado,” said Carol Hedges, executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “It’s not a silver bullet. It’s not a solution. But it’s a step in the right direction … to make sure our kids have access to a world-class education.”

Opponents see it as an assault on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights that would not make a significant difference for schools.

“This has nothing to do with what matters in education,” said Luke Ragland, president of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado. “This is a revenue play for the state. This is merely a dress rehearsal for future initiatives. It’s being sold to voters as a way to improve schools, but there is no possible way it could do that.”

Proposition CC would represent a significant change to the fiscal regime that has governed Colorado since voters passed the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, in 1992. The constitutional amendment’s best-known provision requires voters to approve tax increases, something they’ve been loathe to do at the state level. But it also limits how much the state government can grow every year.

Proposition CC would do away with this revenue cap indefinitely. It would also do away with tax refunds the state has issued when revenue exceeds that cap. These refunds first go to fund a property tax exemption for seniors and disabled veterans — which would not be affected and is funded regardless of whether the state has extra revenue — but refunds to individual taxpayers, estimated to be anywhere from $20 for a low-earning single filer to several hundred dollars for a more affluent household, would not be issued. Just like money for schools, potential tax refunds change depending on how well the economy does.

People on both sides of the initiative see it as a test of Colorado voters’ appetite for broader fiscal reform.

Here’s what you’ll see on your ballot: Proposition CC: Retain State Government Revenue:

Without raising taxes and to better fund public schools, higher education, and roads, bridges, and transit, within a balanced budget, may the state keep and spend all the revenue it annually collects after June 30, 2019, but is not currently allowed to keep and spend under Colorado law, with an annual independent audit to show how the retained revenues are spent?

Voters in many jurisdictions have already given local cities and schools the same ability to retain revenue from existing taxes that the state is now seeking. Roughly three-quarters of Colorado cities and towns and all but four of the state’s 178 school districts have “de-bruced,” the tactic named for TABOR author Douglas Bruce.

Colorado currently funds its schools below the national average, by as much as $2,800 per student less, according to an analysis that takes regional cost differences into account. A different constitutional amendment requires that school spending increase every year by population growth and inflation, but with K-12 education crowding out other budget priorities, the legislature holds back money that would otherwise go to schools.

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the state held back $570 million out of more than $7 billion in state spending on K-12 education. Over the last decade, roughly $8 billion has been withheld from schools.

That’s the context in which Proposition CC is being pitched to voters.

The Colorado Association of School Boards, which has formally endorsed the measure, has fact sheets for each district that compares how much it might get in the next several years with how much the district has lost to the state withholding funds.

The measure calls for money to be distributed on a per pupil basis, so the 93,000-student Denver district could receive anywhere from $4.6 million to $26.3 million a year over the next three years, depending on the economy, compared with $60 million withheld by the state this year, while the 7,000-student Adams 14 district would receive anywhere from $359,000 to $2 million a year, compared with more than $5 million withheld by the state.

Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project said school districts have built up so many needs from the last decade that they’ll have no problem spending one-time money in ways that will show up in the classroom. Those range from curriculum and instructional materials to technology and security upgrades.

“These are all things that have been deferred since the Great Recession,” she said.

But Ragland said this kind of inconsistent funding does school districts little good because they can’t plan around it. And the money will be distributed with no regard for which districts have lower local property tax collections or needier students.

“It’s not that folks are opposed to spending more money on schools,” he said. “But we should spend it in ways that are going to improve student access and student outcomes across the state. Spending it in ways that don’t improve equity doesn’t get us there.”

A state law governing how Proposition CC money can be spent includes “initiatives that help attract and retain educators” as an allowed use. Other authorized uses include efforts “to improve teacher training, and books and technology for student learning.” (The law bans school districts from putting this extra money in their reserves.)

If the proposition funds teacher pay increases, it will be in the form of bonuses, not increases in base salary. Depending on the district and type of training, teachers might also qualify for raises within their district’s salary schedules after completing trainings paid for with Proposition CC dollars, but the ongoing cost would fall to districts.

While Colorado teachers unions have generally opposed raising teacher pay through bonuses, the state union has endorsed Proposition CC.

Future legislators could change those conditions by which the additional funds can be used, though proponents say there will be political pressure — and that independent audit — to ensure the money always goes to schools in accordance with the will of the voters.

Within those limits, it ultimately will be up to local school boards how to spend the money if Proposition CC passes.