Peter Blake

Democrat majority still may face November ballot

It’s easy for the majority Democrats to play like Phi Slama Jama at the statehouse during March Madness, stuffing various gun bills and now a monster education measure down Republican throats.

But when they approach the voters this fall, they may have to make nice instead of playing rough like the University of Houston basketball “fraternity” of the early 1980s.

Senate Bill 213, which overhauls the state’s school finance act for the first time in 20 years, passed the Senate 20-15 on a straight party-line vote Tuesday. It’s expected to pass the House, where the Democrats hold a 37-28 edge, by a similar margin soon.

Proponents say it will provide more state spending in school districts too poor to raise enough money through property taxes. Foes complain that it boosts taxes without implementing needed reforms.

The measure appears to be unique in the state’s legislative history. It won’t take effect unless state voters approve a $1 billion-plus income tax hike in November. Statehouse veterans can’t recall a bill ever being passed whose effectiveness depends entirely on the outcome of a subsequent citizen initiative.

“The process is upside down,” said former Sen. Keith King. R-Colorado Springs, who long led the GOP on education issues. Usually the legislature passes bills implementing earlier constitutional amendments.

But the proposal could never have made it onto the ballot as an integrated measure because a referred constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses.

Two dozen possible versions of the ballot issue have been filed by proponents for review by the Legislative Council. They all include a hike in the state income tax rate, currently at 4.63 percent. Some would raise it to a flat 5.35 percent; others would impose a graduated tax rate, extracting more from the wealthy. Variations would also change Amendment 23, an existing school finance mandate. All would raise about $1 billion in additional revenue.

Proponents, a coalition of business and civic leaders as well as the teachers’ union and the public school establishment, will soon pick one of the proposals and begin collecting the 86,105 valid signatures needed to put it on the ballot. They are expected to spend $5 million or more promoting it.

The 184-page bill will first have to be signed by John Hickenlooper. Aide Cally King said he has made “no commitment” and “wants to see how it looks when it passes the House.”

It’s worth noting that Hickenlooper stayed neutral on Proposition 103, a school funding tax hike initiative promoted by Sen. Rollie Heath in 2011, and it went down to defeat by a stunning 2 to 1 margin.

Keith King, who happened to be elected a Colorado Springs city councilman Tuesday, believes the governor wants no part of it. But Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, says times have changed and Hickenlooper will certainly sign this bill just to keep peace with the unions. He may even be “somewhat supportive” of the campaign in the fall. Gubernatorial backing would be helpful toward passage, and active opposition would be fatal.

Another hazard for proponents of the school initiative: The opposition is likely to challenge it at the Colorado Supreme Court under the “single subject” rule. The constitution prohibits any ballot proposal from addressing more than one issue. Proponents maintain, of course, that the “single subject” is school finance.

Problem is, the high court treats “single subject” very subjectively. History tells us that if the justices don’t like an initiative, or its sponsor, they declare the proposal to have more than one subject. Douglas Bruce learned that lesson, having had even one-sentence proposals nullified by the court.

But the high court is likely to approve the education initiative no matter how many subjects it really has, because it might help get them off the hook on the Lobato case.

Lobato is a lawsuit now before the high court alleging that the legislature has failed to provide a “thorough and uniform” system of education as required by the state constitution. Plaintiffs want the court to tell the legislature to appropriate billions of dollars more, but the justices really don’t want to swim in that swamp. They would surely prefer to see how the current funding package fares before ruling on Lobato.

How will it fare? Keith King insists it’s “dead in the water,” partly because the backers didn’t let the charter schools — whose 84,000 students constitute 11 percent of the public school population — sit at the table during the planning process. The charters don’t get construction money and the money will go to districts instead of to students.

Republicans want the money to follow the students as if it were in a “backpack,” which seems to have replaced the politically stained v—— word in debate.

Will residents in wealthier school districts be against the bill since they’ll not get as much state aid as poorer ones? Hill doubts it. Many people have bought into President Obama’s permanent soak-the-rich campaign and feel pangs of guilt, he said. What’s more, the bill sets aside $5 million to help the richer districts run elections raising their mill levies — a constitutionally dubious provision.

Hill maintains the Democrats stripped out some reforms when they realized GOP senators were going to vote against the bill anyway.

He said the tax-raising initiative “faces a real uphill battle” when it goes to the voters. But even if it passes, he said, the public school lobby is likely to come back for more soon. “They keep implying this is the first of several ballot measures.”

The Never Enough crowd always wants More.

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