State Senator Michael Johnston, a former educator, devoted the past few years of his life to finding a remedy for the inequities and inefficiencies in Colorado’s school finance system. But voters were not on board for the tax hike needed to implement the reforms and voted down Amendment 66 by almost a two to one margin (65% to 35%). We asked Sen. Johnston what happened.
Johnston says they did a lot of polling and were up three or four points until “we had the government shutdown and then the Obamacare difficulties. We went through about three weeks where in every single news cycle the top stories were: government can’t manage its own budget or government can’t manage to put a website together and the stuff they tell you isn’t true. We literally saw the floor drop out of our polling in those last 10 days as people just lost faith in government.
“People are skeptical of taxes in Colorado anyway. We knew there’s never been a statewide tax to pass in Colorado history. Referendum C was the closest thing to pass and that wasn’t even a tax increase, it was just a continuation of the current tax rate. We knew we had the deck stacked against us—but of all the things we tried to anticipate, we didn’t anticipate running into a buzz saw of a national loss of faith in government.”
“The frustrating part is the loss was so much larger than we thought. We raised more money than any statewide ballot in history. We had support of a popular governor, we had support of business leaders. We hit a lot of the benchmarks we wanted to hit and there was still a big defeat. What we’re trying to figure out is, ‘How many of those problems can be solved and will it still be undoable?’
“We still have five more years to bring this to voters. But voters have made it clear they’re not willing to support a tax increase of anywhere near this scale. What we have to do is figure out is what can we do out of existing revenue. Are there ways we can start implementing pieces of this? Is there a way to build a five- to ten-year plan?
“There are still structural problems in the constitution, the overlapping mandates of Amendment 23 and Tabor and Gallagher, which means the state has our foot on the gas and the brake at the same time. We’re at some point going to have to solve that. They (the structural problems in the constitution) are complicated and most people don’t understand them, so that’s something we have got to work on.
“Even the people I debated liked a lot of the policy in the proposal. They didn’t say, ‘I hate the idea of full day kindergarten or of transparency in spending or longer school days and school years for districts that want them.’ It wasn’t that they didn’t like the policy, they just didn’t like the tax. They’d say, ‘Let’s try to do this out of existing revenues.’
“The hard truth is there’s still a scarcity problem—but we’re going to try to do the best we can with the resources we have. What are the most important parts that will have the most impact the most quickly?” Johnston says he’s hopeful that without the tax issue they can get bipartisan support for incremental changes.