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Billion-Dollar Colorado Education Tax Hike Holds Increased Transparency Hostage

To the surprise of few, backers of a billion-dollar Colorado education tax hike yesterday beat the deadline by turning in nearly twice the number of signatures needed to get Initiative 22 on this fall’s statewide ballot. At least no one should have been surprised, given the Sunday Denver Post‘s campaign messaging piece about kids not getting into state-funded preschool (while ignoring a recent study that calls the benefits of pre-K into question).

In any case, the campaign to raise Coloradans’ state income taxes by anywhere from 8 to 27 percent is underway. And the leading voice for Initiative 22, state senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver), has consistently delivered one of the campaign’s leading talking points. “You’ll be able to be the first state in the country to know where every single dollar goes in our system every day” if the tax hike goes through, Johnston told 9News last Friday. Yesterday, the local CBS affiliate quoted Johnston: “They’ll be able to track every day where every single taxpayer dollar goes into the system.”

Who doesn’t love government financial transparency? The goal of enhancing the current online spending disclosure required of Colorado school districts — and at this point it’s not clear just how much this measure would accomplish that — should be applauded wholeheartedly.

But the next instant reaction ought to be: Why should struggling families and small businesses have to pony up a billion dollars more per year to see this small potential improvement? Even taking Senate Bill 213 at face value, putting such a system in place costs comparatively very little, while the State Education Fund closes in on a $1.6 billion balance.

Compass Colorado executive director Kelly Maher responds:

Coloradans have a right to transparency and the centralized system proposed could be helpful. That said, this transparency could have been accomplished in the past legislative session for approximately $5 million. There is no reason that the transparency Coloradans deserve should be held hostage by a billion dollar per year tax increase.

Initiative 22 is also being oversold, however. Johnston said “every single taxpayer dollar” will be accounted for and available for public viewing. Even if it all falls into place, though, that won’t exactly be true. The language in SB 213 leaves some local property tax dollars out of the mix: for capital improvements in growth school districts, and any money paid to cover bond debt for capital construction.

Yet since Colorado education tax hikers have begun to build their case on promises of transparency, it’s good to see clearly who is underwriting their cause. Not just the $250,000 fronted by the state’s largest teachers union, but more recent disclosures reveal another cool quarter million coming from Pat Stryker, one of the Left’s leading funders, to boost Initiative 22.

Still, the spotlight now on the billion-dollar statewide tax increase only highlights the need for more clarity behind soundbites about transparency.

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is co-editor of Watchdog Wire – Colorado. Contact him at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Boulder State. Follow him on Twitter: @bendegrow

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