For just $133 per year, you can restore art classes, gym classes and music classes to schools across the state and hire 1,000 new teachers, all of whom will be held accountable to the highest possible standards. And Colorado students will be guaranteed success in life because they’ll go to kindergarten and have access to preschool.
Or so backers of Amendment 66 would have voters believe. As with most political campaigns, the truth is more complicated.
Amendment 66 is a proposal for education-funding initiatives intended, among other things, to more equitably fund public schools around the state and make up for a shortfall in K-12 funding during the past several years. The amendment is the first proposal for implementing a 140-page bill adopted by the Colorado Legislature last year.
It would do so in part by creating a progressive income tax. Rather than the current flat rate of 4.63 percent, the amendment would raise the state income tax to 5 percent on the first $75,000 of personal income and to 5.9 percent on personal incomes above $75,000.
While backers are fond of citing the $133 per year figure for the “average” taxpayer, the fact is this would be the single largest tax increase in Colorado history, about $950 million next year and $1 billion or more per year in subsequent years.
The amendment would, in addition, require that a minimum of 43 percent of the state general fund be spent on K-12 education.
As well intentioned as all this may be — and there certainly is a case to be made that Colorado needs to step up its funding of public education — the amendment is fatally flawed in its approach.
Its most gaping pitfall is that it is a constitutional amendment. Colorado already suffers the unintended consequences of a trio of constitutional amendments, one of which Amendment 66 would replace. Unfortunately, Amendment 66’s inflexible requirement that a minimum of 43 percent of the state general fund be expended for education every year is likely to prove every bit as vexing.
As important as education is, the state funds equally important things — roads, for instance — that could easily go wanting under this rigidly inflexible formula during some budget years. Haven’t Coloradans learned their lesson yet when it comes to enshrining these mandates in the Constitution?
Amendment 66’s income tax provision is problematic for the same reason. While a progressive income tax structure may be worth debating on its own merits, it has no place being inserted into the constitution as part of a school-funding bill.
Beyond that, no one has really made the case for many of the provisions included in the 140-page bill the amendment would implement. It is almost being treated as an afterthought. Instead we are presented with vacuous, feel-good campaign slogans such as “A big change for a small price.” Really? Since when is $1 billion a year a “small price?”
Some economists estimate the higher income tax to fund the amendment would remove nearly a quarter billion dollars per year in private sector activity from the Colorado economy. Tell the people who will lose their jobs as a result that it is a small price.
And, finally, what’s the rush? It’s estimated the state will have more than sufficient funds for the next fiscal year to make up recent shortfalls in education spending. Plus, lawmakers have until 2017 to implement the state law that spawned Amendment 66.
Colorado voters would do well to heed this ageless advice when it comes to amending our constitution: “First, do no harm.” By those lights, Amendment 66 deserves to be defeated.