Colorado nixes higher taxes: What’s it mean?
‘For the children’ no more—at long last
Don’t blame the kids; it was just bad timing
Maybe it all started with that early-‘90s bumper sticker exhorting motorists to “Never hurt a child.” As if that were the first peril that should come to mind when piloting 4,000-plus pounds of steel at highway speeds through metro-Denver traffic.
Even if that particular message was directed at preventing child abuse—itself, a valid concern—the naggingly precious tone seemed to usher in a wave of public-policy advocacy aimed at putting kids first. Above everything. All the time. No matter what. On any issue from soup to nuts, from school-lunch subsidies to gun control, the outcome had to be “for the children.” It no longer was enough to slow down in school zones; we had to make sure that even passing vehicles were drug-free, tobacco-free, hate-free, you name it. Even foreign policy. War? It “hurts children and other living things.” (Remember that one?)
It was as if somewhere along the line, as we evolved away from kids being seen and not heard, we overcorrected—and fell off the beam. Kids became the tail that wagged the dog. Everything was about kids. Too bad if yours were grown and gone or if you hadn’t had any in the first place; you still were obligated to help raise everyone else’s. Because, of course, it takes a village to…
Until last night.
Colorado voters flogged—make that pulverized—an attempt to raise the state’s sales and income taxes. And they meted out summary execution to a host of local school ballot issues seeking tax hikes around the state.
Proposition 103 in particular—the only statewide tax hike proposed anywhere in the country this fall—represented a textbook case of political tone-deafness and richly deserved the 2-to-1 thrashing it received at the polls. On the heels of what is now widely regarded as the Great Recession—and amid continued, sky-high unemployment throughout most of Colorado—voters were being told to pony up for, yet again, the kids. Yup, from kindergarten through college, they all needed another bailout. Well, not the kids per se but rather the brick-and-mortar institutions whose job it is to educate them.
But let’s be clear about this: Proposition 103’s humiliating defeat wasn’t about the recession; the fact that a whole lot more voters were unemployed compared with the last election was just salt in the wounds. No, the real rub was this: Once again, a handful of moneyed fat cats like Prop. 103 point man Rollie Heath—the retired corporate chieftain and millionaire from Boulder who even looks like Daddy Warbucks—tried to shame Main Street Colorado into digging into its pockets “for the children.” Meaning, of course, for politicians, whom we all can trust to funnel the loot to layer upon layer of some bureaucracy or another.
They couldn’t promise us things would actually improve—as in academic achievement, graduation rates, etc.—at our neighborhood schools or even our local school districts. All they could assure us of is that the state’s education “budget” had sustained a lot of cuts and needed the money. Really. No accountability, no specific goals, not even any specifics for spending the money. Just put it in an envelope, earmark it for education, and trust the legislature to take it from there.
Same old insult, same old gimmick: Use kids as a cover. It worked in 2000 to get voter approval of Amendment 23; it worked in 2005 to secure voter approval of Referendum C. Both were touted to help education and, of course, the children.
Well, we’re over it. Not over getting snookered in general; as long as there are politicians, we’ll fall for their promises. At least, though, we seem to have learned that “for the kids” is another way of saying, “fork it over.”
Geez, Mal; Prop. 103 didn’t receive nearly the flogging from voters that you just administered to Colorado’s kids. Did the neighborhood punks trash your house again this Halloween?
So, you roll your eyes when politicians kiss babies. So do I. That the country-club set was behind the ballot issue and that they ran an unconvincing campaign are also beyond dispute.
Yet, that hardly makes the case that voters had some sort of mass epiphany last night and came to their senses. For better or worse, kids probably will continue to serve as convenient—and, at times, effective—props for opportunistic politicos of every stripe.
Fact is, it’s just like you said, Mal: People are hard-pressed by hard times and tend to feel less generous. They can’t afford it.
And you’re right about another thing: The Prop. 103 posse was tone-deaf. Smart pols in both parties, most notably Gov. John Hickenlooper, foresaw yesterday’s outcome months ago and shrewdly disappeared whenever Rollie Health would come knocking for their support.
Still, such statewide ballot initiatives can and sometimes do pass. You mentioned two of them—Amendment 23 and Referendum C—neither of which was a tax hike though both were perceived as such. And, yes, both were for the children, at least partly so in the case of Ref. C.
Bottom line is that Mal really is reading way too much into this vote. Flawed proposal? Sure. Lousy campaign message? I can barely even recall one. But above all, bad timing; you don’t raise taxes during , or soon after, a recession.
What’s not at all clear is that Coloradans are permanently jaded about raising taxes for education or “for the children” in general. Voters in our state just want to be persuaded, and they weren’t.
Meanwhile, guys like Mal really are sticking their heads in the sand where public education is concerned, and here’s where the likes of Rollie Heath have a point. Public education really is hurting after repeated, recession-induced budget cuts over the past few years. We have to address that because, just like a business that posts successive losses or a household with too little income, our underfunded system of public schools and higher-ed institutions truly risk implosion.
I’ll meet you halfway on this point, too: While, to an extent, it’s a copout to say you can’t feed the bureaucratic beast because it’ll just squander additional tax dollars, it’s also somewhat true. Yet, we cannot starve public education just because we don’t trust the delivery system.
As you know, I’m all for mixing up the public-ed portfolio to deliver this crucial service in a whole new way. Vouchers. Charters. Online schools. By all means, let’s bust the monopoly, and we’ll bust the bureaucracy as a result. Don’t trust civil service managers and teachers union foot soldiers to spend tax dollars wisely? Then do an end-run on them with meaningful reforms .
What we cannot afford to do is let public education wither on the vine, refusing to fully fund it while also failing to reform it.
Does that mean we should have embraced Rollie Heath’s tax hike in the absence of far-reaching reform? I voted for the measure because I know we have to sustain the system that we have until we can replace it with a better one. Remember, even as we’ve been cutting public education spending in recent years, the total statewide enrollment has continued to grow. Those new students need teachers and classrooms .
Kids who are starting kindergarten this year will only be five once. They can’t wait for reform. And that’s why I was prepared to get out my checkbook—not “for the kids,” Mal, but for those kids.