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Backpackin' ballot pains

K-12 public schools fear the chopping block if Referenda C and D fail

Five years ago, Colorado voters turned out in some of the highest-recorded election numbers to alter the state constitution and guarantee funding for K-12 education.

But since Amendment 23 passed, mandating that K-12 public school spending increase annually by the rate of inflation plus 1 percentage point, other state budgets, such as those for highways and higher education, have been slashed by more than $1 billion.

Voters will face a tough choice again this November when they decide whether to support many of those programs by suspending aspects of the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

Referendum C would allow the state to keep $3.1 billion in projected TABOR taxpayer refunds over the next five years. Referendum D would allow the state to issue $1.56 billion in bonds, the majority to pay for road and bridge projects.

Thirty percent of the money held by the state under Referendum C would be earmarked for K-12 funding. But proponents of the measures claim they're less concerned about what they could give to K-12 than what could be taken away if voters say no.

"If C and D fail, we just get in deeper trouble," says Mary Ellen McNally, a longtime community organizer who chairs Friends of District 11, a group dedicated to supporting Colorado Springs' largest school district.

Such failure would be "devastating" to K-12 public schools, says Lisa Weil, co-founder of Great Education Colorado, an organization that advocates for school funding.

"[State legislators] will be in such dire straits that they will need to look into loopholes to reduce funding to Amendment 23."

Weil adds that such cuts would come at a time when Colorado spends $700 less per student than the national average.

"I kind of view Amendments [sic] C and D as Amendment 23 insurance," says Glenn Gustafson, District 11's chief financial officer.

A shadow of the threat to Amendment 23 can be seen in the positions taken by some of Referenda C and D's most vocal opponents. Marc Holtzman, a Republican candidate for governor of Colorado, reportedly called for "reform of Amendment 23" as a part of an alternative budget fix.

And C and D's most organized opponent, the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank, also cites the amendment as a target.

"All we've seen is, keep throwing money at a problem and it doesn't go away," says Ethan Eilon, the Institute's coalitions coordinator.

Amendment 23's guarantees, he says, constitute an "unnatural stranglehold," forcing drastic cuts to higher education. As for C and D, he said they are "a tax increase that completely guts the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights."

Voters should be wary, he warns.

"They have been intentionally vague on where the money is going to go."

Some C and D supporters agree, but others say state politicians will be prudent.

"Isn't that what representative government is about?" McNally asks. "I'm going to trust them."

But McNally will need to work hard to convince voters to agree to C and D as well as to an increase in local property taxes that likely will be on November's ballot. Voters approved a series of bonds to repair crumbling D-11 schools last November, but they balked at agreeing to a tax increase to actually pay for the repairs.

Approval of that property tax measure this year is "desperately needed" for the district and has "little correlation" with C and D, Gustafson says.

-- Dan Wilcock

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