Unraveling Claims of “Bipartisan” Property Tax-Hike Backers

The Dead Governors tout a story about their heroic maverick Republican legislator Al White, who bucked the party line to support a tax increase without a vote of the people (an issue completely ignored in the posting and in the news story linked). White has enabled the Governor to hold forth his property tax hike as a “bipartisan” measure. And the Dead Guvs show no interest in taking a critical look at the piece they so enthusiastically quote. (Nor care to mention the Democrats who voted against it.)

The Dead Guvs’ silence is consistent with their own faulty usage of the phrase “property tax freeze,” which is inaccurate and an abuse of the English language – as I pointed out in a previous post.

Unprompted, I am glad to offer my own quick critique of the article and Rep. White’s statements. It boils down to this: In three ways, the article’s discussion of the tax-hike policy, and the opinions stated by its proponents, completely ignore the state constitution – 1) Amendment 23 already protects school funding; 2) Article IX already protects local school board control of instruction; and 3) TABOR simply calls for the voters to be asked first.

According to the article, Rep. White is concerned about funding for a specific school district:

White said the act will bring $274,000 to Moffat County schools in its first year, and $370,000 in the following year, bringing the county “up to 95 percent of the statewide average.”

“They will never drop below that again,” White said, adding that the funds will help prevent reductions of educational services, and resulting impacts such as larger class sizes, in Moffat County.

“We’ve got to do something,” White said about K-12 funding in Colorado. “I don’t know what other solution is out there. This is a solution that will slow the shift to state funding for local school districts.”

One solution would be to recommend that voters modify Amendment 23 and the burden it places on the state budget, requiring automatic funding increases for K-12 regardless of budget circumstances. We can debate forever about the extent of the problem created by education receiving greater shares of state funding (local per-pupil funding increases aren’t keeping pace with the increases required by Amendment 23, so state per-pupil funding has had to grow faster in recent years). But the fact is – according to the National Center for Education Statistics – that only 13 states generate a larger share of education funding from local sources than Colorado does. Restated, Colorado ranks 14th out of 50 states in the percentage of public school revenue raised by property taxes and other local sources.

And why the needs of a select few school districts should necessitate a statewide policy change that bypasses a vote of the people – in violation of the state constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights – is unclear.

Another solution would be for legislators to adjust the school finance formula, without raising taxes, to correct the balance of “winners” and “losers” among school district recipients. As far as the overall state and local contribution to the K-12 education program, increases are protected by Amendment 23 in the state constitution. The problem is legislators’ priorities clash with local voters’ priorities – legislators want even more state budget money freed up so they can spend on various programs, so they force the local voters to pay more in school property taxes to help cover the difference. The net result is a lot more tax revenues and a growing state government.

Finding a clear, straight, and honest answer for why this measure was needed, though, can prove quite difficult. It’s a complicated subject and can be difficult for both journalists and politicians to explain. So let me be clear that I’m not impugning anyone’s integrity – I don’t believe the sources are lying or misleading anyone, just that they need a lot of clarification. In the news story, you have a misstatement like this one, with my editorial corrections included:

The act also is known as Senate Bill 199. It will use property taxes to help untie a knot of state education laws that has led to increasingly more state funding, and less [a smaller share of] local funding, for K-12 education each year. Supporters of the School Finance Act say the trend has created a strain on Colorado’s general fund and resulted in less local control of money for schools.

In addition, how can there be a “strain on Colorado’s general fund” so shortly after the revenue windfall of Referendum C and a record-size state budget of $18 billion? And how is “local control” threatened by the ratio of state funding to schools? Article IX of the state constitution already guarantees local school boards have control of instruction, and it’s not contingent on what share of the funding comes from which sources.

Let me repeat for the __th time: Locally-generated revenues to Colorado public schools – including revenues from property taxes – have been increasing greater than inflation and student enrollment combined.

And for the __th time: Nothing in the bill guarantees any school in Colorado will receive an additional dime. It just raises taxes for most property owners, while freeing up legislators’ ability to spend more money in the state budget at their discretion.

Anyone out there who has a basic grasp of the property tax-hike policy who wants to defend it by rebutting any of the points I’ve raised is welcome to do so. But it’s becoming more apparent to me that proponents are not terribly interested in a transparent discussion – either because they fail to understand the policy, they have a guilty conscience, or they don’t wish to embarrass Governor Ritter or certain legislators.

The fact that tax-hike backers don’t want to bring the issue to a vote of the people tells you everything you need to know.

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