Opinion: Budget shortfall brings out best, worst in us

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With deficits swelling everywhere, local and state governments this year have been dealing with the mother of budgeting headaches.

Lawmakers in Denver, having already cut education funding, among other areas, were at one point considering whether to hack another $1.5 billion from the state’s $18 billion budget.

Whether they go that far was up in the air, though the odds seemed remote given the Democrats’ control of both chambers and their reluctance to burn and slash. Holding off might turn out to be the better approach, given signs of a recovering economy, but no one really knows.

In trying to address the shortfall, a few decent money-saving ideas were approved — for example, going after delinquent taxpayers and holding off on loans to build rural dams — but some half-baked notions emerged, too.

Eliminating the state’s Homestead Exemption property-tax break for seniors seems fairly heartless to me. And you’ll remember that early in the legislative session, lawmakers did away with nearly a dozen tax breaks on candy, online software sales, soda and other items.

You know the Republic is in a decrepit state when we start sticking it to grandparents and a tax break on a can of Coke becomes the topic of heated partisan debate.

In any case, as desperation set in, House Democratic Leader Paul Weissmann last week went completely overboard when he suggested eliminating more than 100 remaining tax breaks as a way to balance the budget.

Having so many different tax breaks in place sounds like a logistical nightmare. But Weissman’s idea was a bad one because it would mean putting the burden on businesses in a wholly disproportionate manner.

Looking ahead, Rep. Debbie Benefield of Arvada offered a smart idea that should be put to voters in November.

Under her proposal, the state constitution would be amended to give lawmakers the elbow room to raise taxes for education without having to plead for approval from voters at every turn.

Amendment 23 was supposed to take care of protecting education funding, but because we’ve had no inflation of late, it isn’t working.

As a result of the cuts in the works, K-12 educators will have $253 less to spend on each student next year compared with this year.

Higher education would be worse off were it not for federal stimulus dollars, tuition hikes of 9 percent, hiring freezes and staff cuts. Further hikes in tuition will come after the stimulus dollars disappear next year.

As we all know, under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights state lawmakers are handcuffed any time they consider a proposed tax increase.

Now I’m all for power to the people, but Colorado at the moment is ranked 48th in the nation in our ability to get our poorest children to complete a college degree. That’s just unacceptable.

Scott McInnis, the Republican candidate for governor, went into hyperbolic overdrive in responding to Weissman’s proposal by saying it would hurt Colorado jobs, families and dreams.

As I said, Weissman’s proposal won’t fly. But when school districts can’t replace 10-year-old books, the damage has already been done.

Meanwhile, some folks who apparently want to speed our path to becoming a Third World state are pushing amendments that would lower property and state income taxes, kill motor vehicle registration and cell phone fees and prohibit the state with incurring debt.

No one enjoys paying taxes, but these amendments fall into the realm of the utterly ridiculous.

Perhaps we should follow the lead of Fruita.

Voters in that western Colorado town last week OK’d a 5-percent sales tax on medical marijuana. Fruita is the first city in our state to do so.

The move could raise about $100,000.

Fruita could have gone further and followed the lead of Oakland, Calif.

Under a measure approved by voters there last year, dispensaries pay $18 for every $1,000 in gross sales. There’s no doubt that’s a highly inequitable tax, given that the rate for other retailers is $1.20 for every $1,000 in gross sales. But sales at Oakland dispensaries have shown no sign of trailing off, and the higher cost has been passed on to customers.

There is legislation in the Statehouse this year that deserves bipartisan support: Initiative 48 would allow grocery stores to finally stock liquor and wine.

It may be one of the few bills this year worth cheering.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Reach him at allen.greenberg@csbj.com or 719-329-5206.

2 Responses to Opinion: Budget shortfall brings out best, worst in us

  1. Perhaps the reason we are 48th in the nation in education has nothing to do with the amount of funding our schools have. Perhaps it has something to do with the teacher’s union, and particularly the number of teachers who are tenured but really need to go. Perhaps it has to do with having so many independent school districts. Two nights ago on Independent Lens on RMPBS there was a great program about a school situated in the Bronx, most residents living below the poverty level and minorities. A young man named Ed Tom has taken that school from being last in the district to having almost every student graduate high school and go on to college. How did he do it – with more funding? No. He took a personal interest in each of his students, he would greet them at the front door each day, visit them in their classrooms, and much more. He became not only their principal, but their mentor. He also selected teachers who believed in his vision of bringing up the bar for expectations and helping the students attain those goals. None of these gestures cost more money, just a personal commitment from him and his staff. Perhaps our educators could take a lesson from Ed Tom.

    Lynn Liggett
    April 19, 2010 at 12:59 pm

  2. Under a proposed Colorado Springs city ordinance being developed to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, an application fee in the neighborhood of $3000 would be required along with an annual license fee of about $2000. In addition, they would be required (and most already do) to collect city, county, and state sales taxes (currently a total of 7.4% of which Colorado Springs would get 2.5%).

    As to Amendment 23, for the first 10 years, K – 12 funding got an automatic 1% plus inflation raise each year. After that, education spending will increase by the amount of inflation. The 1% additional each year was to raise the level of spending to a sufficient amount and then to sustain that amount as school expenses increase, presumably due to inflation-caused increases.

    Unlike school funding, funding for local city services is totally dependent on sales, use, and property tax revenue and, unlike a “guaranteed” raise each year, the local revenue to capped by TABOR in those years where revenue does increase, which certainly hasn’t been the case in Colorado Springs since 2008. So, while the demands for city services continue to increase, the funds to provide those services has decreased resulting in city work force layoffs, early retirements, vacant positions, and cuts in services required to maintain a balanced budget.

    Bernie Herpin
    Council Member
    City of Colorado Springs

    Bernie Herpin
    April 20, 2010 at 7:54 am