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Colorado Tax Increase for Schools Goes Down to Defeat

[UPDATED]

A Colorado ballot item that would have raised billions of dollars for public education was soundly defeated at the polls Tuesday in one of the most closely watched school issues of the 2011 election year.

With 99 percent of the precincts counted early this morning, the Associated Press reported the split was 64 percent against the ballot measure, close to 612,000 votes, to 36 percent, about 350,000 votes, in favor.

Proposition 103 would have raised the state's income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 5 percent, and the state's sales and use tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3 percent, each for a period of five years, after which the tax hikes would expire.

It would have generated an estimated $3 billion during that period—all of which would have been directed to public schools, though the measure did not specify how the money would be allocated, from preschool through K-12 to college.

The arguments put forward by supporters and opponents of Proposition 103 stuck to many of the same themes that have played out in state and federal elections in recent years, as the prolonged economic downturn has sapped school budgets. Many school districts across the country have been forced to lay off teachers, raise class sizes, and cut popular programs, while coping with shrinking state and local revenue.

Backers of Proposition 103, who included unions and other school organizations, said the new money would help Colorado schools make up for the budget cuts that many have absorbed in recent years. They also noted the measure would return tax levels to rates that were in place before tax cuts were implemented more than a decade ago.

Opponents, who included many conservative organizations and business groups, said it made no sense for the state to raise taxes as it continues to attempt to pull out of the depths of the economic downturn. They cast the measure as a "job-killer," a description that carries echoes of the denunciations that congressional Republicans have assigned to President Obama's proposals to raise taxes on the rich.

Voters' concerns about the economy almost certainly sapped some support for the measure, said one backer of the measure.

"We always knew it would be a struggle," said Carol Hedges, the director of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, an organization that advocates for low-income residents and supported the proposition. "There's economic instability, and it has families and people worrying about the welfare and condition of their own families."

Efforts to support the proposition were also set back by the splintering of various groups who have traditionally backed more funding for public schools, Hedges said. Some advocates said the measure wasn't big enough, she said. Others wanted a more permanent fix to school funding shortfalls. Others favored making one change or another to school policy before asking voters to support more money for K-12 education, she added.

"There's a lesson to be learned about putting together a coalition," Hedges said. Creating a unified base of support for a tax measure is crucial, she said, and also "very hard to come by."

Hedges noted the "irony" that voters defeated Proposition 103 on the same day that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, released a proposed budget that calls more cuts in K-12 funding. The Democratic governor's spending plan for the coming fiscal year would reduce school funding by $97 million, to $4.2 billion. Over the past few years, he said in a statement, "demands for state services and benefits have increased substantially and reflect the pressures of a growing population and a weak economy." Hickenlooper did not take a position on Proposition 103.

Victor Mitchell, a former state lawmaker who opposed the ballot item, called the result an "unprecedented thrashing" and said it reflected voters' refusal to support new taxes for schools without accountability.

"There's a tremendous anger and frustration among the electorate to keep [the government's] hands off their pocketbooks," said Mitchell, who chairs Save Colorado Jobs, a group that fought the proposition.

Mitchell said the results also showed that voters were not willing to provide new tax money to schools "without any reforms attached to it." He said the menu of reforms should include charter-school expansion, private school vouchers, and teacher pay-for-performance.


While 2011 is an off-year election, the Colorado result may offer signals to members on both parties on how they frame their arguments about government spending—specifically on education—in the battle royale of state and federal campaigns in 2012.

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