An odd convergence took place last Monday when oral arguments began in the case of Lobato vs. State of Colorado and supporters of Initiative 25 turned in nearly twice as many signatures to the secretary of state as are necessary to put the measure on this November’s ballot.
The Lobato case is a suit alleging that current state spending on K-12 education violates the state constitutional requirement that there be a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of 6 and 21, may be educated gratuitously.” The plaintiffs believe the provision will be interpreted to mean that, because some lower-income districts receive less state and local funding than other districts, that our state constitution requires more state money be allocated to K-12 spending. Their allegations ignore the fact that because of Amendment 23, K-12 has been largely inoculated against the spending cuts that have plagued most of state government for the last decade, and that it hasn’t been until the last two years that K-12 has suffered the reductions the rest of state government has had to endure.
Initiative 25 is the creation of state Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder. It would restore state sales tax to 3 percent from its current level of 2.9 percent and push state income taxes back to their previous level of 5 percent from the current 4.63 percent. The proceeds from the increases would be dedicated to K-12 and higher education. Initiative 25 faces tough sledding, as the combination of our slow economic recovery and the current rhetoric that any new tax is a bad tax will make it hard to convince voters to approve even the most modest levy.
It’s almost impossible to argue against the notion that public education at all levels in Colorado is starving. K-12 spending took real dollar hits in the last two state budgets that forced spending cuts and fee increases in districts throughout the state. Over the past 25 years, the burden of providing public education has steadily shifted from being primarily funded through local property taxes to being funded primarily through state dollars. We need to have a serious policy discussion about how best to fund elementary and secondary education in this state in ways that respect local authority and reflect local values.
Higher education has been hit higher by the state’s budget problems than any other part of the state. State support for higher education is at a historic low, and each time the legislature makes less money available to our colleges and universities, tuition increases make it more and more likely that we will reach the point when quality, affordable college educations will cease to be available for all Coloradans. That result would be tragic, as we would find ourselves without the infrastructure for people of all economic levels to succeed and contribute to our collective future.
While Labato and Initiative 25 share an interesting date in history, they deserve decidedly different fates. Labato should be dispatched and K-12 education should work collaboratively with other interests to meet all of Colorado’s needs. And while it is hard to approve additional resources and dedicated funding is not the ideal public policy, we should support the modest restoration Initiative 25 makes to our tax rates to ensure the investment previous generations have made in an educated Colorado continues now and for the foreseeable future.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.