Editorial: Dishonesty from the Bell Policy Center (with response from The Bell Policy Center)
By Bill Hudson
Pagosa Springs Daily Post.com
A friend sent me an email a few days ago, with a link to a YouTube.com video produced by the Bell Policy Center in cooperation with ProgressNow.
The video is titled, "The Bad 3: In Plain English."
"The best explanation you can get in under five minutes," my friend wrote. Yes, it seems we have become a species that formulates its world-view based largely on five-minute YouTube videos.
The video is a clever, very-low-budget animation that uses little cut-out cartoon drawings placed on a white background. You get to watch the person's hand moving the cut-out pieces around, adding them or removing them, while a man's voice explains how the "Bad 3" - Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 – will destroy Colorado and everything we love about. (Passage of these three ballot propositions, we are led to believe, will destroy even the Denver Bronco's Superbowl legacy.)
You can view the 4 minute 51 second video by clicking here.
But if you don't like watching YouTube videos, I will quickly summarize the first 1 minute and 33 seconds of the video. That's as far as I got watching this little piece of propaganda, before I stopped watching and went on to more important things.
Not that the man's voice wasn't pleasant. And not that the cartoons weren't clever. I just couldn't tolerate the dishonesty.
The Bell Policy Center is a "progressive" think tank located in Denver. According to their Facebook page, "The Bell is non-profit, non-partisan policy center. We conduct objective research, and we advocate public policies that reflect progressive values. Our mission is to make Colorado a state of opportunity for all."
When I attended a community meeting hosted by the Archuleta School District last spring, I was given a copy of the Bell Center's analysis of Proposition 101, and Amendment 60 and 61. At that point, the Bell Center's Powerpoint printout, distributed by the school district, still had the appearance of an "objective" piece of research.
I was curious that our school board would be distributing an advocacy piece published by a "progressive" think tank. I somehow had not conceived our school board as an especially "progressive" political body. But I suppose when governments – even Republican-controlled governments - are looking to increase taxes or preserve the highest possible tax rates, they turn to "progressive" think tanks to make sense of it all.
The YouTube video starts out with the narrator humming to himself, as if he is in the midst of doing something he really loves doing. Well, I guess spreading political propaganda can be pleasant enough work. I enjoy it myself sometimes.
The narration begins:
"This is the Bad 3: Amendment 60 and 61 and Proposition 101. In Plain English.
"Colorado. It's a great place to live. From the mining days, to the homesteaders, to the birth of the ski industry, to the Broncos winning the Superbowl – Coloradans have come together to build a great state."
"Great schools, connected to great libraries, connected to great hospitals, connected to beautiful parks, connected to bunches of breweries (and other great industries) all connected by people who saw mountains not as obstacles but as opportunities."
Then we hear a quick snippet of a Swiss yodeling song.
"Hard work, good investments, and thinking big, built Colorado. Enter the Bad 3: Amendments 60 and 60 and Proposition 101. The Bad 3 are three ballot measures Coloradans will vote on this coming November."
Then we see a hand placing a "No Parking" symbol atop the three ballot proposals.
"They would put the brakes on ALL of this."
We then see a shot of all the cute Coloradan cartoon characters – the miners, the homesteaders, the skiers, the sun, the mountains – getting wiped off the white background onto the floor. Even the Superbowl trophy gets dumped.
The Bad 3 have destroyed everything. Everything, folks.
"First, Amendment 60. This one is about property taxes.Here's how it works. When your community wants to build a new school, it has to raise money to pay for it. This happens as part of a local election."
"Basically, local residents go to each other and ask, ‘Hey, I'll pay a little bit more to build this school. Will you?'
"If enough people agree to pay a little bit more, then the small increase in taxes goes into a pot that ends up being the money to build the school."
(Sound of people cheering.)
"Along comes Amendment 60."
(Sound of people booing.)
"Amendment 60 does a couple of things. First, it wipes out the decision your community made to pay a bit more to build the school."
"Basically, your vote didn't count."
That's where I stopped watching.
It's very true that our vote "didn't count." In fact, we weren't even given a chance to vote. Amendment 60 is the first chance we've been given to vote – on lowering our taxes.
People all over Colorado have passed mill levy increases over the years to build new schools, before and after the passage of the constitutional amendment known as TABOR. Pagosa Springs voted to build a new high school in 1996, for example, by approving a special bond issue. TABOR allows the voters to increase their own mill levy for special projects like schools.
But contrary to what the Bell Policy Center would have us believe, these "small increases in taxes" do not "go into a pot that ends up being the money to build the school." What actually happens is, the community agrees to sell bonds – puts itself in debt, in other words – and then pays for the new school over the next 20 or 30 years, using property tax revenues.
Once the mortgage payments are totaled, the school ends up costing the taxpayers two to three times its actual value. But almost all Colorado communities think such an investment in education is worthwhile.
In 2007, however, a strange thing happened. Governor Bill Ritter and his Department of Education decided they needed more money to operate the state's school system. So they froze the mill levy in every Colorado school district where the voters had elected to build a new school, or replace a roof, or buy a couple of new school buses.
Ritter and his team argued, "Well, if the Pagosa Springs voters agreed to raise their own mill levy to build a new high school, then obviously they are completely in support of every kind of education funding, and we need to freeze their mill levy to pay for increased school spending all over Colorado."
As a result of this freeze, Archuleta County property owners are now paying 72 percent more school district taxes than we were in 2006. But all of that extra money is doing nothing to increase local school funding – it's merely reducing dramatically the amount of state funding that comes to Archuleta County.
Archuleta County voters agreed, in 1996, to tax ourselves "a little bit more" to build a new school. We were repaid for that goodhearted act, eleven years later, by having our mill levy frozen by the state of Colorado, and seeing our taxes increased – without any voter approval - by 72 percent.
Amendment 60 is one attempt to control a runaway Department of Education budget. It's not a perfect solution; in fact, it's a rather imperfect solution. But it's a small step in a new direction.
People from all corners of the political spectrum are capable of lies, exaggerations, dishonesty and corruption. I'm pleased to know that there are research foundations like the Bell Policy Center who are willing to conduct "objective research." But it's pretty clear, from watching the first minute and 33 seconds of "The Bad 3: In Plain English" that full-disclosure and honest information do not necessarily result from "objective research."
By lumping all three proposed ballot measures into one single "Bad 3" unit, opponents have been able to make statements like the one included in a letter signed by five of Colorado's 14 Republican Senators:
"Yes, these three issues are a direct reaction to poor treatment of taxpayers by Democrats. However, this reaction is so far overreaching that it will ultimately kill Colorado jobs and strip local governments' ability to provide police and fire protection and to educate our children."
Amendment 60 has nothing to do with police or fire protection. It applies only to school districts. And our local school district, long ago, gave up much of its ability to make decisions about our children's education. Those decisions are being made in Denver – by the same folks cut our state school funding in half, to "balance" the 72 percent higher taxes paid by Archuleta County taxpayers.
Response from The Bell Policy Center
Sept. 28, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Watt is communications director for The Bell Policy Center.
In his editorial on September 23, Daily Post editor Bill Hudson accused the Bell Policy Center of dishonesty. His accusation stems from a video we helped create that explains, in plain English, how Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 would work.
Mr. Hudson turned off the video – and formed his opinion about our honesty, apparently – at the point when the narrator says that Amendment 60 would wipe out previous voter decisions about their taxes.
Mr. Hudson and others may disagree with the Bell Policy Center (and the Colorado Supreme Court, for that matter) about the so-called mill levy freeze in 2007. But that is not the point.
The claim that we make in the video is that Amendment 60 wipes out all previous local votes to retain excess revenues, and that is true. The language in the amendment is unambiguous ("Prior actions to keep excess property tax revenue are expired"), and the amendment would wipe out hundreds of elections that local voters have already decided.
Mr. Hudson's headline was inaccurate and unfair. The Bell's analysis – and its video – is accurate and honest. And if you don't want to take it from us, take it from former Gov. Bill Owens. In Sunday's Denver Post, Owens wrote:
"These measures take away your right to vote on many tax issues, a right guaranteed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR). Despite the decisions by voters in hundreds of communities to use TABOR to put additional dollars back into local services, including schools, the proponents of these ballot measures would overturn every one of those elections going back to 1992.
"While I might not agree with many of those local decisions, it's simply wrong to invalidate the will of voters, especially after those of us who support TABOR said we would let the voters decide."