Buechner Breakfast panel debates the pros and cons of Amendment 66 at CU Denver

The education reform aims of Amendment 66 are widely embraced, but the means to achieve those ends — a two-tier income tax hike that exempts corporations — divided Friday’s Buechner Breakfast panel.

The panel discussed the pros and cons of Amendment 66, the sweeping education reform initiative that will be decided on Tuesday’s ballot, in front of a full Terrace Room on Nov. 1.

Speaking in favor of the amendment were Andrew Freedman, campaign director for Colorado Commits to Kids, and Lynea Hansen, senior vice president of Strategies 360. Firmly against Amendment 66 was Norma Anderson, former majority leader of the Colorado Senate. Somewhat in the center was Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which supports the reforms of Senate Bill 213, but has remained neutral on its companion funding measure, Amendment 66.

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs, moderated the panel. The Buechner Breakfast series, held on the first Friday of each month, is coordinated by SPA’s Buechner Institute for Governance.

Anderson said the income tax funding mechanism — which would raise $950 million — hurts small business owners because, unlike corporations, they wouldn’t be exempted from the levy. “To me that is so unfair,” Anderson said. “The first time I read 66 I thought, ‘Are you trying to get rid of all the small business in the state?'” She also opposes adding more complexity to Colorado’s Constitution.

Brough said 90 percent of companies represented by the chamber are S-corporations or limited liability companies and “that’s where the job growth is for our economy.”

Nonetheless, Brough said the chamber supported Senate Bill 213, which passed the Legislature last session. “It’s the first time in our history we defined how money would be spent in education before we proposed to put more money in,” she said. “… We’ve laid the groundwork for where those investments would go.”

Whether that investment will happen is up to the voters. Anderson pointed out that Coloradans don’t like to raise taxes. Freedman and Hansen, however, are confident voters will favor the ground breaking reforms and first overhaul of the school finance system in almost 20 years.

“I think your average voter just wants to see their kid get a good quality education, and they do believe additional money is needed,” Hansen said. “I think that’s the bottom line .. and that you will see it pass.”

Freedman agreed that Coloradans are “a discerning bunch” who will respond to the “exact road map” of where the money is spent. “All our cards are on the table,” he said. “I think what we’ll see is it’s not everybody’s perfect vision, but it’s everybody’s good vision.”

SB213’s earmark of 43 percent of the state’s general fund for K-12 education would end up hurting higher education, Anderson said. “When they start working on the budget after this passes, higher ed will not get any more money, because that’s the only place to cut in the budget.”

Freedman said SB213 actually eliminates the auto-accelerator of Amendment 23, which calls for annual increases in K-12 funding tied to inflation. The earmark is a little less than the percentage of general fund spent on K-12 over the past 10 years, he said. “We need this fix. When the next recession hits we no longer will have the budget flexibility we need to fund other things like higher ed, and Amendment 66 fixes that.”

The panel discussed the lopsided amount of money in the battle — the anti-66 group has spent a paltry sum compared to the $10 million by the pro-66 camp — and the influence of out-of-state money on the measure. Brough said it’s disconcerting to see how easily external forces can influence what issues get on the ballot in Colorado.

Freedman said the money coming in shows “we have a nationally leading education reform movement. This can be ground breaking in a national way and that’s why you see national money coming in.”

Hansen said education reform, which is polling at all-time highs, can’t keep relying on foundations for funding because “it can go away.” If Amendment 66 fails, the reform movement will have to go back to the drawing board, Hansen and Freedman said. Anderson said, “If it fails you’re not going to pass another tax, unless it’s just a very minor one.”

The panelists also raised concerns about unfunded mandates that occur from the convergence of three amendments in the Colorado Constitution: TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), which restricts spending on taxes); Amendment 23, which automatically increases K-12 spending; and the Gallagher Amendment, which affects property taxes.

Anderson received strong applause by saying, “You don’t have a legislative body anymore. I’m sorry. They don’t have any flexibility,” she said. “I’m looking for a group to spend $10 million, $20 million to fix the Constitution instead of just one piece.”

(Photo: Debating the pros and cons of Amendment 66 at the Nov. 1 Buechner Breakfast are, from left, Lynea Hansen, Kelly Brough, Andrew Freedman and Norma Anderson. Pictured at far right is moderator Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs.)

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