BY FREDA MIKLIN
On September 4, 100 leaders of business and government gathered at the AMG National Trust Bank dome in Greenwood Village for a Common Sense Policy Roundtable-sponsored (CSPR) debate between Heidi Ganahl, University of Colorado Regent and CSPR board member and K.C. Becker, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives on Referendum CC, referred by the legislature and on the November ballot. The debate was followed by the presentation of an in-depth study and analysis by Dr. Brenda Bausch Dickhoner, CSPR Education Fellow, of how K-12 education is funded in Colorado. AMG CEO and Chairman Earl Wright, who also chairs CSPR, hosted the breakfast gathering. Joey Bunch, Colorado Politics Deputy Managing Editor, moderated the spirited discussion.
Referendum CC seeks to allow state government to keep revenues collected in excess of TABOR limits during strong economic times, instead of splitting the excess collections into individual refunds for every Colorado taxpayer. Becker told the audience that, under the current rules, Coloradans are expected to receive refunds of $38 each in 2020 and 2021. If the ballot measure is approved, an extra $600 million extra would be directed to K-12 public education, Colorado’s public colleges and universities, and infrastructure, comprised of roads, bridges and transit, in the next two years.
Becker explained, “The economy is booming and we still struggle to hire teachers and fill potholes in Colorado. This (Referendum CC) allows us to benefit K-12, higher education, and infrastructure in a booming economy. We have lost 40 percent of our purchasing power for roads because the gas tax is still 22 cents per gallon, the same rate as it was in 1992.” She went on, “We now have 4-day school weeks in 110 school districts in our state and we are 51st in the U.S. for paying teachers. When Colorado has real economic growth, we are not allowed to benefit. We need to invest in education and infrastructure in years we would otherwise be making TABOR refunds.”
Ganahl contended that the measure lacked guardrails or a sunset clause and there was no guarantee that the money given to K-12 education would result in higher academic performance. She said, “This is not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem.” She cited former CU President and United States Senator Hank Brown, along with former Governor Bill Owens, as being opposed to the ballot measure.
Tyler Sandberg, who manages former Rep. Mike Coffman’s campaigns and is currently vice-president and co-founder of Ready Colorado, a conservative group focused on school choice, asked what guarantee we have that the money for K-12 education would be spent on teachers’ pay?
Becker cited Colorado’s longstanding and strongly-held policy of local control by elected school boards in determining how money is spent in their school district, agreeing that there is not a guarantee that K-12 funds will go to increasing teachers’ salaries. On the subject of higher education, she said that CU Boulder currently gets only seven percent of its budget from the state. “We’ve essentially privatized higher education.” She continued, “One of the biggest beneficiaries (of Referendum CC, if approved) will be rural community colleges.”
On infrastructure, Becker said, “Voters across the state are reacting to impacts of growth. People are angry about our crowded roads.” On the topic of the state budget, she challenged the roomful of 100 leaders, “Where can we cut the general fund budget? Mental health? Provider fees (to doctors) for Medicare and Medicaid? Youth Corrections? Funding for people with developmental disabilities?”
Wright encouraged the legislature to “take a look at PERA (the state’s public employee retirement plan)….”The state allocated $225 million last year to PERA.” Becker responded that the state decreased PERA benefits last year, increased contributions, and extended the retirement age, “to put it on a path to be fully funded in 30 years.” She agreed with Wright that, “PERA can probably do more.”
Dr. Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner closed the program by presenting her in-depth study of the complex and often inequitable method used to distribute K-12 public education monies in Colorado, which also notes that current per-pupil state funding of $8,480 is at an all-time high. The results of the study are outlined in detail on page 13 of the September 5 issue of The Villager.