Todd Engdahl, EdNews Colorado

The campaign to pass a $950 million K-12 tax increase effectively started Monday when backers of the plan turned in more than 160,000 petition signatures, about double the number needed.

Although the Department of State must verify that the group Colorado Commits to Kids has gathered 86,105 correctly formatted signatures from registered voters, it’s expected the group will easily reach that mark. The department initially will do a sampling of signatures to project whether the requirement was met.

Later in the day, the opposition group Coloradans for Real Education Reform had its first news conference, where a parade of Republican lawmakers and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton blasted the tax plan as ill-conceived, unnecessary and a possible backdoor subsidy for the state pension system.

Backers of the ballot measure, temporarily named Initiative 22, brought the petitions to the department’s downtown offices in a converted school bus and ferried dozens of boxes into the building, lining a the walls of a conference room with the containers.

Campaign officials didn’t have an exact figure but put the number of signatures at between 160,000 and 165,000. More than 40,000 were gathered by volunteers, primarily organized by the Colorado Education Association and the advocacy group Great Education Colorado. Paid petition circulators were used by a company named FieldWorks, which so far has been paid more than $560,000 by Colorado Commits.

Thanking the people who carried the petition boxes, Sen. Mike Johnston quipped, “You can go home and take a half hour rest” before starting the campaign. The Denver Democrat is a leading backer of the plan and the author of Senate Bill 13-213, a reform of the school-funding system that won’t go into effect unless the ballot measure passes.

“We have our work cut out for us [but] we can do this,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. Heath was cosponsor of SB 13-213 and proposed an unsuccessful school tax measure in 2011.

Gail Klapper, director of the civic group Colorado Forum, joked, “I think it was a world record for signatures,” adding, “It’s an awfully strong statement about how people feel about education in their lives.” Colorado Forum was a driving force behind getting the ballot measure language drafted.

Curtis Hubbard on OnSight Public Affairs, the consulting firm advising the campaign, said the official launch won’t come until the measure has been certified for the ballot. He said the campaign already has a dozen staff members and volunteers.

“Who knows what that will grow to? We’re willing to put the money forward to do it,” he said.

Johnston estimated the campaign will raise $6 to $10 million. “We think it will be one of the most robust grassroots campaigns ever seen,” he said.

Later Monday, leaders of a recently registered opposition group, Coloradans for Real Education Reform, held a Capitol news conference to introduce the group and criticize Initiative 22.

Headliners of the event were GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Bob Hagedorn, a Democratic former legislator from Aurora.

Stapleton, a vocal critic of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, claimed the proposal doesn’t contain the safeguards he believes are needed to guarantee the additional revenue “would not go to backfill unsustainable pension obligations.”

(Current state law specifies how much school districts must contribute to teacher pensions, an amount that will rise to about 20 percent of payroll in a few years. Those obligations are in place regardless of whether the ballot measure passes and SB 13-213 goes into effect. The ballot measure doesn’t require additional pension contributions, and supporters note that the plan earmarks the new money for education. Johnston Monday called the PERA criticism “the big myth.”)

Hagedorn called SB 13-213 “a lost opportunity” because it doesn’t expand school choice for parents. He also said “Our economy is too fragile at this point” for a tax hike.

“For the first time in my life I’m opposing a school tax increase.”

The GOP lawmakers who spoke repeated the “too fragile” concern, and Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said the state has a surplus of more than $1 billion it could spend on education reform. (He’s correct that the State Education Fund is projected to have a $1.6 billion balance this year. But that’s one-time money, while Initiative 22 would provide continuing revenue.)

Kelly Maher, executive director of another group named Compass Colorado, explained that the new group is a coalition of Compass and the Independence Institute. “We’re just getting off the ground. We’re doing this on a shoe string,” Maher said.

Compass is a non-profit conservative political advocacy group that because of its organizational structure doesn’t have to report contributions and spending. The new group is registered with the Department of State and will have to report on its finances.

Karin Piper, a Douglas County school choice advocate, is listed as the executive director of Coloradans for Real Education Reform. She also runs a group named Parent Led Reform (see her Facebook page).

One other opposition group, Coloradans Against Unions Using Kids As Pawns, also is registered with the Department of State.

What the measures would do

The ballot measure would raise state income tax rates to 5 percent on earnings up to $75,000 a year. Income above that amount would be taxed at 5.9 percent. The current individual tax rate is 4.63 percent on all income. SB 13-213 is a much more complicated law that would change the formula for funding school districts and direct more money to preschool and full-day kindergarten, as well as to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students and English-language learners.

Colorado Commits estimates that the measure would increase income taxes by $50 a year for taxpayers earning $30,000, by $132 for those earning $57,000 (state median household income) and by $731 for those earning $150,000 a year.

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