Colorado's Swing County Could Decide Fate of Amendment 66's K-12 Tax Hike
In terms of state and national politics, Jefferson County, Colo., might accurately be called the "King of Swing." The easiest example to point to concerning this county's importance to elections is that in 2012, both President Barack Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney gave campaign speeches there. And voters in Jefferson County, which has a school district of about 84,000 students, could be the deciding factor for Amendment 66, the income-tax increase that is intended to fund expanded early education in the state, provide a general boost in Colorado's per-pupil spending in public schools, and target districts with high concentrations of low-income and English-language learner students with extra funds.
Among the many folks I've spoken to here about Amendment 66 are two women heavily involved in Jefferson County schools who fundamentally disagree about the merits of the proposed constitutional change. One is Laura Boggs, a school board member who opposes it, and the other is Kelly Johnson, who's campaigned for local tax increases for K-12 and is backing the amendment.
Let's first consider the argument from Boggs. From her perspective, Amendment 66, which would create a progressive income tax in Colorado with a top marginal rate of 5.9 percent, is simply bad math for her constituents. Although the school system would receive an additional $71 million in state funding if the amendment gets voter approval, Jefferson County taxpayers would have to pony up roughly $120 million in additional taxes to get that extra K-12 funding. In fact, if the state raised $950 million in new taxes but distributed them under the existing formula, Jefferson County would also get more money than it does under Amendment 66, she added.
Backing up her view is a chart from the Independence Institute in Denver, a right-leaning think tank that shows taxpayers in Jefferson County and two other relatively wealthy counties, Boulder and Douglas, getting a raw deal under Amendment 66. As you can see below, the institute calculates that their cost-to-benefit ratio is nearly 2-to-1 under the amendment.
If "ZIP code education" is a bad idea, Boggs argues, then Amendment 66 is the same kind of bad idea, by connecting local district wealth to K-12 funding, just in a non-traditional way. She called the proposal "the largest tax increase" in Colorado history, if approved.
"This is going to be a big drag on the economy, but it also has no way that it's going to guarantee better student results," she said, citing the lack of state-provided incentives for districts to perform better.
What does Johnson say? She acknowledges that in terms of tax dollars going to the state and K-12 funds coming back, Jefferson County loses out, but Johnson questioned whether that's any different from the current tax and budget dynamic in Colorado. And after the "huge cuts" to public schools since the Great Recession of roughly $1 billion, she said, districts deserve the chance to begin building back their budgets with the help of Amendment 66.
The supporters of the amendment say it will enable smaller class sizes and the restoration of arts and sports programs. Those programmatic changes aren't explicitly a part of the legal language governing how new revenues from the amendment must be spent, but Johnson says districts know what they need as they recover.
"Myriad changes were made," Johnson said, referring to budget cuts. "This funding coming back into the system again allows choices to be made."
She also takes a broad view that what she wants out of the state's K-12 system isn't limited to the resources her children get in Jefferson County schools. Amendment 66 supporters have also made arguments about the proposal's statewide impacts, from its ability to blunt school fees for various materials and activities, to what they say is the "return on investment" it will provide for the state's economy:
"It's not just about my kids. I want their peer group [to succeed] ... I can't just put my head in the sand and say, my kids are going to be OK," Johnson said.
When I went up to Boulder to attend a pro-Amendment 66 campaign event, the Boulder Valley school superintendent, Bruce Messinger, also acknowledged that Boulder County would be a "loser" in the tax-versus-schools revenue equation. But he argued that the long-term impact of being able to pass the amendment, in a state with a Taxpayer Bill of Rights law, would only be beneficial for all schools and their funding stability in the future. You can see that kind of thinking at work in the video I shot in Boulder, in which John Tayer, the president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, extols the ability of Amendment 66 to both close the achievement gap and provide for the state's economy.