Rep. Debbie Benefield of Arvada announced Wednesday that she would introduce a referred measure asking voters this November to amend the state constitution to give lawmakers open-ended authority to raise taxes to cover education expenses.
Currently, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights requires lawmakers to get voter approval for any proposed tax increase. Benefield's proposal would make a permanent exception for hikes that fund schools.
"I don't want to cut our children any further," Benefield told parents and other backers gathered at the state Capitol. State Reps. Judy Solano, Mike Merrifield and Joe Rice also stood in support.
The measure faces an uphill battle in an election year and there were hints this could be a warmup for a larger budget fix to come later.
Benefield needs the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in order to put the question on the ballot. That means she'll need votes from both Democrats and Republicans, and this session the parties were sharply divided over rolling back existing tax credits and exemptions to balance the budget.
Kristi Hargrove, a Republican small business owner and mother of four from Crested Butte, said the debate shouldn't be partisan. Her district hasn't had enough money to pay for textbooks for 10 years, leaving parents to raise the money themselves, she said. Next year, her school will likely have to increase class sizes by not replacing elementary teachers who are set to retire, Hargrove said.
"We can't do it anymore. We're at the bottom," Hargrove said.
If the measure made it to the ballot and voters backed it, it would be too late to reverse the approximately $250 million total that has been cut this year and is slated to be cut next year.
Lawmakers have already reduced state support for schools by $130 million this year. Now they're considering cutting funding for school districts by an estimated $119 million next year, a 3.4 percent drop, by changing the way some funding factors are calculated under Amendment 23. Local funding is also dropping because of lower property values due to the recession.
Districts will have $253 less to spend on each student next year compared with this year as a result.
Amendment 23, which was passed by voters to protect school funding, requires that baseline education funding increase by inflation plus one percent each year. For the first time since its passage, inflation is negative, so the net increase in base per pupil funding would be only 0.4 percent next year. However, overall funding is still decreasing because state lawmakers are reducing funding for other factors meant to account for differences between school districts, such as cost of living.
School advocates argue that this year's proposed cut is 6 percent below what schools would have normally gotten under Amendment 23 if lawmakers hadn't changed the way increases are calculated and had fully funded schools this year.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)