It’s a very intriguing proposition.
Vote to forgo a relatively small tax refund and allow the state to spend that money on much-needed programs for K-12 education, higher education and transportation in Colorado.
It’s primarily the permanency of Proposition CC — along with a few other concerns — that has us recommending you vote no on this measure.
CC asks voters to allow the state to keep money collected above the limit established by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, commonly called TABOR. That amount is estimated to be $310 million during the 2020-21 budget year and $342 million the following year, according to an analysis by the General Assembly’s Legislative Council Staff. That would mean on 2020 and 2021 tax returns a typical single filer would give up a refund ranging from $26 to $90. Estimates in this analysis were not made available beyond two years, and it should be stated that there would not be any additional revenue if the economy takes a dive.
The proposition would divide excess revenue equally among three segments: public schools, public higher education, and state and local highway and transit projects. The Legislative Council Staff’s analysis estimates each segment would receive $103 million in 2020-21 and $114 million in 2021-22. An independent financial audit of the spending would be conducted each year.
In the spring, the state Legislature referred CC to the ballot, having garnered the vote of only one Republican — state Sen. Kevin Priola, of Adams County — along the way.
As can be expected when TABOR is involved, CC has been politically divisive. Some Republicans contend the measure is intended to test the waters for future tax increases and a possible push to repeal TABOR, which has been in force since it was approved by voters in 1992. Democrats insist that’s not the case, that this measure is actually in the spirit of TABOR in that it lets voters decide what will be done with their tax money.
For the sake of this argument, we’ll focus on the more-narrow scope of what this ballot question is asking, rather than the larger TABOR picture.
Prop CC is indeed addressing crucial funding concerns. While Colorado’s economy is booming and the annual state budget is in the tens of billions of dollars, this is amid the backdrop of explosive population growth. About 5.7 million people now call the state home, a roughly 13 percent increase since the 2010 Census. That certainly has put a strain on the state’s transportation infrastructure and public education system.
We don’t buy the argument that state leaders are simply mismanaging the money they already have at their disposal. The state must find ways to increase revenue, particularly to fund segments like education and roads.
But what CC asks for from voters is something of a leap of faith.
The proposition mandates that public schools would receive money on a per-pupil basis and that the funds can only be used for nonrecurring expenses. The bill that established the funding allocation formula for CC, House Bill 19-1258, mentions things like books, technology and “initiatives that help attract and retain educators” — those could be bonuses, for example. Raises for teachers, however, are excluded, since they are recurring expenses. In a state where teacher pay is sorely lagging, that can be seen as a big omission.
On the transportation front, according to HB 19-1258’s fiscal note, 60% of the money would go to the State Highway Fund “for use for the state’s strategic transportation project investment program”; 22% to counties for projects; and 18% to municipalities for projects. No doubt this money would be helpful to an extent, but we’d like to see it tied to more specific projects. After the money is divvied up, we’re not sure what would get done — or if the amount of money available would be enough to get much done at all.
What about higher education? Little information is available on how this one-third would be spent.
Perhaps most concerning, though, is that CC doesn’t sunset. We’d rather see a more focused measure, outlining very specific ways your tax money would be spent over a specified period of time, perhaps three to five years.
There’s a risk that if CC passes, education and transportation will be thought to have been “taken care of,” so to speak, by lawmakers and voters. But those segments are in need of billions of dollars in the coming years, not speculative infusions of money that fluctuate with the economic performance of the state.
The way we see it, a vote of no on CC isn’t saying the need doesn’t exist. It’s saying the need is so important it demands a more thorough, well-thought-out approach.
And that’s something the Legislature can work on next year.
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