Colorado schools stand to lose $1 billion if Amendment 60 passes; Critics say 'Big Three' tax-cutting measures would slash funding for roads, police, libraries, many more services
By Rachel Cernansky
If Amendment 60 passes in November, students across Colorado will know it. They will soon be in more crowded classrooms and are likely to have fewer after-school and enrichment programs, course offerings and textbooks.
Colorado schools will lose more than $1 billion if Amendment 60 passes; operating at about half or less of their current budgets, school districts will not be able to afford full staffing or maintenance of existing programs.
Then there's Proposition 101 and Amendment 61, the other two of the controversial "Big Three" ballot initiatives being put to voters this election. They would both slash school funding, and neither attempts to require the state to ensure certain levels are maintained.
Dave Montoya, budget manager for Poudre School District, said it's hard to speculate how the cuts will be distributed in his own district, but there will undoubtedly be an impact in the classroom. With the cuts imposed by the Big Three, he said, education will "look drastically different than what K-12 education looks like right now."
Proposition 101 would reduce state income taxes by about 25 percent and specific ownership tax by 98 percent, and slash or eliminate telecommunication taxes and fees. These sources of revenue, along with property taxes, comprise the large majority of K-12 education funding.
Amendment 61 would limit or prohibit all borrowing by the state and local governments, leaving schools hard-pressed to finance construction, building repairs, or, in many cases, make payroll, since schools often borrow money to pay staff while they wait for taxes to be collected in the spring.
Proponents point out that Amendment 60, which would cut local school property taxes, requires the state to backfill the loss in funding to schools, but city and school officials wonder how the state will manage to do that when it is already facing a budget crisis.
Questions also loom over the fate of all other government services – including police and fire departments, higher education, and the court and prison systems – if the state does compensate schools for the money they will lose. Budgets for those services could be reduced by up to 99 percent.
There is no doubt among officials across Colorado that the initiatives, particularly Amendment 60 and Prop 101, would impact the public in a significant and visible way, from public safety to road quality. More than half of Colorado's roads have been declared in poor condition and 128 bridges structurally deficient by the Department of Transportation. With any of the "Big Three" in place, no one can guess where the funds to make necessary improvements would come from.
The Larimer County government, for example, would lose $7 million in ownership tax, said John Knezovich, a certified public accountant and former mayor of Fort Collins. "Every penny currently going into the road and bridge fund – over a four-year period, that money would just disappear."
Amendment 60 would also require publicly-owned enterprises, which include the University of Colorado, Denver International Airport, the Division of Wildlife, and wastewater and landfill services around the state, to start paying property taxes.
What those taxes add up to is unknown, as these properties have not been appraised before, Joe Watt of the Bell Policy Center points out, but "it is easy to grasp that these [taxes] would be passed directly to consumer (fliers, hunters, water drinkers) because these are generally not-for-profit outfits. Costs go up, they have to charge more."
And while local residents will see some reduction in their property taxes, the expenses will be shared by all users. Taxes for Boulder County residents, for example, will drop because the University of Colorado's will increase, but students from around the state are likely to see a rise in tuition.
Steve Miller, the Larimer County Assessor, who would be tasked with assigning values to local public enterprise properties, doesn't know how he would begin to do that. "I don't know how this could possibly work," he said. "We don't need more constitutional stuff piled onto the mess that we call a property tax system."
Also under Amendment 60, counties would allow all property owners, regardless of their status as a resident, to vote on property taxes, a provision that raises various concerns across Colorado. In Larimer County, budget director Bob Keister has pointed out that to develop an election system for 25,000 non-resident voters, the county would have to divert funds from other services.
In Summit County, where a substantial number of homes are owned by second-home owners, some towns are concerned that ballot measures popular among full-time residents could fail because of second-home owners who only spend half their winters in town.
Most counties do not have precise budgets worked out for the potential scenario that any of the initiatives pass, but all foresee devastating cuts to every department.
Boulder County, which does have a contingent plan, warns of decreased funding for police patrol and crime prevention, reductions in traffic enforcement, and other police services like crime analysis and investigative work becoming less timely. Snow removal will be compromised, wastewater services will be reduced and utility rates will increase. Similar cuts will be visible with all other services, from animal control to waste reduction programs to libraries. The city is also considering increasing parking rates and overtime fines.
The initiatives would hit some counties harder than others. Calvin Hamler, finance director for Pueblo County, said, "I think we're different from a lot of counties in that we have a lot of social needs here. Our unemployment is very high, and so the demand for these services is higher."
If Proposition 101 passes, Pueblo County will have to cut a lot of the outside, non-mandated social services that Hamler says are in high demand, such as community health centers, children's and women's resources, detox services, and environmental groups. If these are not done away with, he said, they would certainly be hit the hardest.
Pueblo's ability to apply for matching grants from the state for projects like road repair and construction would be affected as well, because the up-front funds required, even if they would be reimbursed by the state later, would be unavailable. "If we can't afford the match, we can't afford the grant," Hamler said.
"We already have a very bare-bones budget," he continued, referring to the $10 million the county recently cut just to balance next year's budget. Combined with the weakened economy, Hamler said, "We're in a perfect storm now."