Heath: “Grand Bargain” K-12 Tax Hike “Beginning to Take a Bite” from Elephant

Imagine sitting down to write a term paper or thesis, then releasing the first draft of the paper not only to your professor but to a worldwide audience. Now imagine your paper contains instructions for allocating billions of tax dollars to a bunch of different groups. You can start to understand what Colorado state senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver) feels like after releasing a draft of legislation to rewrite the state’s 19-year-old School Finance Act.

In the funny game of democratic politics, is it better to make a bold push in one direction, or to try to bring diverse interests together around a “Grand Bargain”? When it comes to Johnston’s monumental effort, the question is being played out before our eyes. The idea is to tie “bold” school finance reform to a “bold” $1 billion tax increase proposal on November’s ballot.

Ed News Colorado reported on last Thursday’s feedback session Johnston’s office sponsored, where he heard lots of questions and lots of concerns. Former State Board of Education member Randy DeHoff stressed a reasonable point that the overall effort really isn’t so bold on reform. He described it fairly as “a lot more money going into a 19th century system.”

At the same time, some supporters of “revenue enhancements” or “increased investments” to K-12 education expressed doubts, insisting that the $1 billion target wasn’t high enough. Johnston talked about internal poll results that showed asking for more money would be fatal to the whole proposition. He framed 2013′s “Grand Bargain” as the vanguard of a longer-term effort.

“What I want to do is make that initial investment and then get a chance for us to track our results and see how we’ve done, and then help us inform the next investment,” the senator assured the crowd of 150 or more.

Rollie Heath, Johnston’s senior Democratic colleague on the Senate Education Committee, echoed the theme in an apparent effort to reassure wavering support from the Left. “How do you eat an elephant one bite at a time? This is not eating the elephant,” he said. “This is beginning to take a bite. That’s why I tried to do [Proposition] 103. Let’s at least start, because if we don’t start, we’re never going to get there.”

Two months after 103, Senator Heath’s 2011 tax increase campaign, burned up in the meteoric flames of voter anger, a Denver district court judge ignored key parts of the state constitution and ruled that the state underfunds K-12 education by $2 to $3 billion per year.

State officials appealed the early 2012 Lobato ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court, saving the legislature from having to comply with the decision. At least for the time being. Never mind PERA’s costly retirement contribution burden. Never mind the growth in spending on non-instructional personnel. Never mind that cost-saving options like scholarship tax credits are off the table.

Even if Johnston’s plan succeeds, his school finance reform bill passes the General Assembly and 50.1% of voters approve an income tax hike, he acknowledges discovering recently that the schools’ gain (and taxpayers’ pain) wouldn’t get into gear until 2014.

“It’s slow, even when you’re going fast,” Johnston explained.

After nearly two full years of the School Finance Partnership and untold number of meetings, technical discussions, and feedback sessions, the goal still seems far away. Trying to push through needed changes to the School Finance Act by joining those changes at the hip with a bigger tax bill still appears a tough sell.

Hence, a pep talk from Senator Heath to keep the fragile coalition from splintering apart. “That means we can’t equivocate,” he lectured the audience. “But we’ve got to be honest, is it going to give everything that you want? No. Heck no. Is somebody going to get a little more than the neighbor next door? Yes.”

One next door neighbor that spoke up loudly last Thursday were charter school parents and leaders, who saw in the first draft an unsatisfying solution to the existing financial inequities most of them face. Some suburban school officials additionally have raised their own serious concerns about a new formula that drives state dollars away from cost-of-living expenses and twice rewards high-poverty districts for their low-income students.

Official numbers have been hard to come by, but the best estimates show property and income taxpayers from wealthier areas picking up a disproportionate burden for very little or no return to their local K-12 schools. Districts like Denver and Aurora figure to hit the jackpot.

Combined with the very real concern that most of the dollars would be backfilling through a $600 per student “State Education Investment” and full-day kindergarten funds, with little tied directly to innovation, the centrifugal force on the bill’s political support could be felt around the room.

Now it’s back to the drawing table. Word has spread that the second draft (the official bill) will drop in the next couple days. Eager eyes wait to see whether and how the 144-page legislation improves. A lot is at stake.

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