The crushing defeat of Amendment 66 was a seismic event in Colorado politics that will also reverberate nationally. By virtue of its size, audacity, and above all its setting, Amendment 66 was a potential template for those committed to growing government and redistributing wealth. As noted by 66 opponent Kelly Maher of Coloradans for Real Education Reform Colorado, Amendment 66 could answer a question long-posed by liberal political strategists across the country: “How do you sell a massive tax increase?”
Colorado voters decisively answered that question: You don’t , at least not in this state. The huge size of the tax increase — nearly a billion dollars annually — was decidedly off-putting, particularly in an economic climate where Census Bureau data show Colorado household income still 7.2 percent below pre-recession levels. Governor Hickenlooper, the nominal leader of the Amendment 66 campaign, in his own election night analysis, conceded that the size of the increase was a major factor in its defeat.
Colorado voters also realized they were being cut out of decisions on future tax increases when they spotted the Amendment’s language stating “All tax revenues attributable to this measure to be collected and spent without future voter approval.”
Amendment 66 is the latest in a long line of initiatives following a familiar union script — Money Now, Reform Later, Maybe — that sadly has been successful in many jurisdictions across the country. The failure of this tactic this year in Colorado is explained by two critical miscalculations in the planning of the Amendment 66 campaign.
The most damaging was the assumption that the changing political complexion of Colorado, as evidenced in recent elections, combined with a sophisticated big dollar marketing effort could translate not only to a financial bonanza for the education establishment, but also the overthrow of Colorado’s status as a “flat-tax” state, which gives primacy to voter approval of tax increases. The elimination of the flat-tax — long an anathema to the Democratic Party — and the introduction of a “graduated” tax code could open the door to multiple future tax increases on “the rich” without the inconvenience of voter consultation. As a result, a large proportion of Colorado voters — knowing how flexible the term “rich” is — decided this direction was not for them. Thus, we discover that while Colorado has indeed changed politically, in regard to taxation, it hasn’t changed that much, particularly in the aftermath of a brutal recession.
The second miscalculation was the failure to recognize how the financial provisions of Amendment 66 would fracture the unity of the education community by funneling disproportionate amounts of money to a relative handful of high-poverty districts, while being a net loser for many others. For example, according to the State Treasurer’s office, for every dollar taken in taxes from suburban districts like Jefferson and Douglas counties, the state would only send back 50 to 60 cents to their schools. This extreme Robin Hood funding formula goes far toward explaining why many local school boards flat out refused to endorse Amendment 66, much less work on its behalf.
So, does all this mean that Nov. 5 was a dark day for children and the end of school reform in our time? No, not at all. The overwhelming defeat of Amendment 66 coupled with the state supreme court’s striking down the over-reaching original Lobato decision means that, in the future, school improvement will not follow the union-preferred script of defining education reform as beginning and ending with dunning the voters for more money — despite the fact that schools already consume nearly half of total state and local tax dollars.
Education reform in the future will more likely reflect another message sent by the voters on Nov. 5, when they affirmed in heartening fashion reformist school board candidates in Denver, Douglas County, Jefferson County, and elsewhere. In doing so, they clearly signaled that education reform is about many things besides money. Hopefully we are at last ready to hear that message.
Former Colorado Education Commissioner (1997-2007) William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Philadelphia Inquirer.