The closure of schools and cutbacks in programs and faculty across the state has prompted the sole ballot issue in the 2011 November election.
Proposition 103 proposes to increase the state's personal income tax rate, the corporate income tax rate and the statewide sales and use tax rate for calendar years 2012 through 2016. At the end of the five-year term, the taxes would return to 2011 levels.
Proponents of the measure are hoping to raise an estimated $2.9 billion to support public education across the state.
The measure would increase the state's current income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent, the level at which the state's single tax rate was initially set in 1987 when the state moved from a graduated income tax rate to a single tax rate. In subsequent years, the rate was reduced twice to bring it to the current 4.63 percent rate, which has been in place for the past 11 years.
"America is based on a fundamental belief of public education. It's the foundation of our democracy, the foundation of economic development," said Lisa Weil, policy director of Great Education Colorado, which was one of several organizations that worked to get the measure on the ballot.
Great Education and its supporters helped to garner 21,000 signatures at 90 locations around the state. For consideration of the ballot measure, groups needed 86,000 signatures by Aug. 1; they actually collected 142,000 signatures, Weil said.
"We all benefit from strong schools and colleges," she continued. "If you think education is expensive, find out how expensive ignorance is. If we're not educating our kids, we're paying for prisons and other social services. And if we don't invest in ourselves, businesses are not going to invest in Colorado because they need an educated workforce."
But opponents to the measure fear raising taxes may slow Colorado's economic recovery, according to The 2011 State Ballot Information Booklet, or Blue Book.
Opponents also are skeptical how $575 million in additional taxpayer money each year will actually improve education. "Increasing the tax burden on Colorado's citizens does not guarantee a higher quality public education," the Blue Book reads.
"Education is a local issue...," arguments against the measure continue. "Communities can seek local options and private resources if they feel their schools need more funding. Similarly, pursuing higher education is an individual choice and should not be further subsidized by the state."
The measure requires money raised through the tax increase "be allocated in addition to, not as a substitute for," the state's budgeted amount of spending on education. About $4.3 billion is budgeted for the 2011-12 year, but that number may change.
Opponents argue that if the economy fails, larger cuts to other programs may be necessary while minimum education funding levels are met because of the measure.
But Weil says it's about putting students first.
"It's a grass roots understanding that our kids can't wait, and we have to take action," she said.
At her eighth-grade son's school as part of Denver Public Schools, she said, there are presently 35 students in each classroom.
And she cited districts such as East Grand Schools that have been forced to close a school, and other districts reducing school weeks to four days. She cited schools losing library programs, cutbacks on art and music programs, and chemistry teachers who can't hold labs any longer because schools can't afford materials and class sizes are too large, deeming lab curriculum too unsafe.
Jefferson County, she said, reduced its graduation requirements for the sole purpose of saving money.
In the latest statistics available, Colorado is rated 40th in per-pupil funding, Weil said. "People need to understand, if this doesn't pass, there will be more deep cuts to schools, more large cuts to education. Opposing Prop. 103 is giving the green light to a fourth year of cuts to K-12 education. It's short-sighted."
The measure has been written to leave it to the discretion of the legislatures which segments of education benefit from the measure's generated income.
In other words, the General Assembly could apply the funds to areas of education, such as exclusively K-12 education, or categorical programs in K-12 education, operating revenue to higher education, or administrative functions within the Colorado Department of Education. As much as $36,000 of the income will be used to make modifications to computer systems at the Department of Revenue to help adjust to the new scale of income and state sales taxes.
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603