The Gazette

October 23, 2013

We need high-quality K-12 education to attract and keep good employers and to preserve and maintain Colorado's quality of life. On these shared values, proponents of Amendment 66 want voters to approve a tax that will take $1 billion and more from the state's economy every year without a sunset.

The Gazette's editorial board has looked for every opportunity to get behind Amendment 66. It is sold in conjunction with classroom reforms passed out of the Legislature in 2010 in Senate Bill 191 - with The Gazette's blessing.

Amendment 66 would fund a school finance bill, Senate Bill 213, approved by the Legislature this year. We have studied the law and met at length with its primary author, the affable and intelligent Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat and former school principal. We have read and published letters and articles from supporters. We attended a debate and spoke with an array of supporters and opponents.

No matter how we try to like this bill - because of the good it promises children - we find structural problems too big to overcome this time around. It's too much money to risk on a measure that cannot assure taxpayers the revenue will reach students and teachers and create a satisfactory return on investment.

No one defending this bill can definitively dismiss warnings by state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and state School Board Chairman Paul Lundeen. The two have rigorously analyzed the tax increase and come to the same conclusion: It will inevitably backfill the state's troubled Public Employees' Retirement Association, which owes retired and retiring teachers and other state employees considerably more than it has. It could do this whether proponents of the bill want it to or not. Until a proposal is written that protects the money from PERA, voters cannot trust a billion-dollar tax with a mere promise the money will help children.

Aggravating concerns is the nagging threat of a teachers union lawsuit. If successful, the looming challenge would sabotage a popular classroom reform that's part of the tax-hike promise. Proponents, which includes teachers unions, tie the taxes to an SB191 provision that links teacher tenure - a form of contractual job security - to classroom performance and results. Yet, the same union leaders who support the tax increase have secretly harbored plans to challenge the tenure reform after the election.

If that doesn't erode trust in the promises of Amendment 66, there's the little matter of state legislators quietly sitting on a $1.1 billion revenue surplus for 2014 without spending any substantial amount of it on education. If the schools are so poor, in desperate need of new money to improve, it seems reasonable the Legislature would quickly use what resources it already has. With education a high value in Colorado, the Legislature shouldn't claim poverty while sitting on a fortune at the expense of our teachers and students. In doing so, they only bolster fungibility concerns of critics who say new tax dollars will free up existing and future education money for less worthy legislative endeavors.

Education can be an excellent investment, but only if the funds are protected for proper use in classrooms. Amendment 66 sounds good, even if it's expensive, until rigorously scrutinized. It doesn't assure voters of results and is mired in legitimate trust concerns.

After voting against this tax increase, welcome the Legislature to try again. Present voters with a more precise, efficient and less expensive plan that leaves no questions about potential misallocation. Go to the ballot with a measure that instills confidence in the prospect of long-term results, thus reducing concerns about buyer's remorse.

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