In Colo. a lonely leg­is­la­tor cru­sades to raise taxes

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

DEN­VER | Any pol will tell you that there’s no good time to try to sell a tax in­crease to vot­ers, and that a pe­riod of deep eco­nomic uncer­tainty is even worse — un­less that pol is Colorado state Sen. Rol­lie Heath, who in­sists there’s no time like the present.

“The best way to grow your­self out of a re­ces­sion is to in­vest in ed­u­ca­tion,” the Demo­cratic law­maker said. “My dad said, ‘The time to count pa­per clips is when you’re do­ing well; the time to spend money is when times are tough and other peo­ple aren’t.’ ”

Mr. Heath, who ap­par­ently lis­tened to his fa­ther, is the driv­ing force be­hind Propo­si­tion 103, an against-the-grain mea­sure slated for the Novem­ber bal­lot that would raise an es­ti­mated $3 bil­lion for ed­u­ca­tion by im­ple­ment­ing a tem­po­rary, fiveyear in­crease in the state sales and in­come taxes.

In an age of deep skep­ti­cism about state and fed­eral spend­ing, even Mr. Heath’s fel­low Democrats here are less than en­thu­si­as­tic about push­ing a tax hike on the vot­ers this year. Mr. Heath was forced to go the pe­ti­tion route to qual­ify the mea­sure for the bal­lot af­ter the Demo­crat-con­trolled Se­nate re­fused to ap­prove the take hike as a ref­er­en­dum.

Gov. John Hick­en­looper, a Demo­crat, re­mains of­fi­cially neu­tral on the ini­tia­tive, hav­ing promised dur­ing his 2010 cam­paign not to sup­port a tax in­crease dur­ing his first year in of­fice. The Colorado Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, the state’s largest teach­ers union, en­dorsed the mea­sure only af­ter the state sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice ver­i­fied the sig­na­tures in Au­gust.

“Other than the usual lib­eral groups and teach­ers unions, who came to this rather re­luc­tantly, [Mr. Heath] doesn’t have much sup­port,” Den­ver poll­ster Floyd Cir­uli said. “The chal­lenge he faces is that not only is the pub­lic re­ally anx­ious about their own in­come lim­its and dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, but this is also an era of anti-govern­ment feel­ing. It’s just not a good time.”

Even so, the mea­sure has at­tracted national at­ten­tion as a gauge of anti-tax feel­ing. Of the 29 bal­lot mea­sures now slated to ap­pear on state bal­lots in Novem­ber, Propo­si­tion 103 is the only true tax in­crease, ac­cord­ing to Jen­nie Bowser, elec­tions an­a­lyst for the National Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures.

So far, the pub­lic’s dis­taste for tax in­creases ap­pears un­changed. A poll re­leased Aug. 7 by Pub­lic Pol­icy Polling showed 45 per­cent of Colorado vot­ers are in­clined to sup­por t the mea­sure, while 47 per­cent are op­posed.

State Repub­li­cans have been quick to seize on the mea­sure to ac­cuse Democrats — once again — of fa­vor­ing tax hikes to fund their pet govern­ment pro­grams.

“Democrats don’t get it,” said House Speaker Frank Mc­Nulty, a Repub­li­can from High­lands Ranch. “Colorado’s hard­work­ing fam­i­lies and job cre­ators are strug­gling to sur­vive in this re­ces­sion. The last thing they need right now is Democrats push­ing an­other state tax in­crease.”

Still, the mea­sure did gar­ner 142,000 pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures, far more than the 86,000 re­quired to qual­ify it for the bal­lot, an in­di­ca­tion that vot­ers still may have a soft spot for schools. Known as the “Bright Colorado Ed­u­ca­tion In­vest­ment Ini­tia­tive,” the pro­posal would raise the state in­come tax from 4.63 per­cent to 5 per­cent, and the state sales tax from 2.9 per­cent to 3 per­cent, from 2012 to 2017.

The mea­sure states that the fund­ing would be chan­neled to kinder­garten through 12th grade and to higher ed­u­ca­tion, although op­po­nents say that noth­ing in Propo­si­tion 103 en­sures that the money would be used for schools.

“With Propo­si­tion 103, the money goes into the gen­eral fund. There’s no guar­an­tee the funds will be al­lo­cated to ed­u­ca­tion,” said Regina Thom­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Too Tax­ing for Colorado, an is­sue com­mit­tee formed to op­pose the mea­sure. “The money could just as eas­ily go into [the Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees’ Re­tire­ment As­so­ci­a­tion] to fund teach­ers’ re­tire­ment ac­counts.”

The op­po­si­tion group also points out that about half of the state gen­eral fund al­ready goes to­ward ed­u­ca­tion. The school sys­tems also ben­e­fit from Amend­ment 23, a 2000 ini­tia­tive that re­quires the leg­is­la­ture to in­crease K-12 spend­ing each year by the rate of in­fla­tion.

De­spite that, Mr. Heath notes that Colorado still ranks in the bot­tom third in terms of state ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing. The state spends $8,718 per pupil, which ranks 38th na­tion­ally, ac­cord­ing to 2009 fig­ures from the Fed­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Bud­get Project.

The state is now em­broiled in a school-fund­ing law­suit, Lo­bato v. Colorado, in which plain­tiffs are seek­ing to force the state to lay out bil­lions of dol­lars more for K-12 ed­u­ca­tion. While the con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the case could hurt Propo­si­tion 103, Mr. Heath said it might ac­tu­ally help by call­ing at­ten­tion to “how dra­mat­i­cally un­der­funded we are.”

It’s tempt­ing to dis­miss Mr. Heath as an­other big-govern­ment Boul­der Demo­crat — Mr. Cir­uli calls him “the grand­fa­ther of Colorado lib­er­als” — ex­cept that he also knows a thing or two about the pri­vate sec­tor. Be­fore run­ning for of­fice, Mr. Heath served as a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive with Armco Steel and Johns Manville, and later founded Pon­derosa In­dus­tries, a metal-parts man­u­fac­turer.

Colorado won’t be able to lure com­pa­nies and recharge its econ­omy with a sub­par pub­lice­d­u­ca­tion sys­tem, Mr. Heath said.

“If you don’t have an ed­u­cated work­force, you’re not go­ing to at­tract busi­ness,” he said. “I think it’s the best mes­sage we can send to the rest of the coun­try, that we’re in­vest­ing in ed­u­ca­tion.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

He ex­pects more from the cit­i­zenry: Colorado State Sen. Rol­lie Heath

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