rolling the dice

The legislative habit of gambling on the future

One of the many peculiarities of Colorado’s complex state budgeting process is the legislature’s weakness for spending – or at least promising to spend – money before it’s even collected.

The latest example popped up just last week, when the House approved House Bill 14-1342, a measure that would provide extra funding for higher education construction projects – but only if the 2013-14 budget year ends with more surplus revenues than currently predicted.

K-12 education has benefited from such tactics in the past, and there has been some fear in districts that this year’s higher ed plan might disadvantage K-12.

The scheme probably means that the State Education Fund would receive a smaller infusion of cash than it might have otherwise. But in any event the higher ed finance plan won’t affect district funding in 2014-15, an issue that’s the focus of a separate – and bigger – debate.

“It’s based on ‘if’ there’s money left at the end of the year,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee.

So the K-12 lobby has decided not to pick a fight over HB 14-1342 and instead to remain focused on its main goal for 2014 – persuading lawmakers to make as large a dent as possible in the state’s $1 billion K-12 funding shortfall.

“Do we like this amendment? No!” Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives wrote in an email to members last week. He said the CASE legislative team recommended “that we do not get drawn into a battle with higher education, the governor and the Joint Budget Committee” and remain focused on reducing the shortfall, known at the statehouse as the “negative factor.” A group of superintendents is pushing for a reduction of as much as $275 million. A pending bill, House Bill 14-1292, proposes $100 million.

That doesn’t mean HB 14-1342 will get a free ride in the Senate. Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, vice-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, doesn’t like the idea of earmarking unknown future revenues. “I’m not the biggest fan,” Steadman said Tuesday morning before the bill was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I expect we’ll be talking more about the bill on the floor,”

Budget timeline
  • The legislature will vote by May 7 on a budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
  • That budget is based on revenue estimates that were issued in late March.
  • Actual tax collections almost always differ from those estimates, especially when revenues are increasing.
  • So, backers of HB14-1342 are betting that when the state closes its 2013-14 books next fall there will be a bigger actual surplus than was predicted this spring, providing money for buildings.

Summary of HB 14-1342

Like virtually every other budget fight, the HB 14-1342 tussle has its roots in the 2008 recession, which sent state tax revenues into a tailspin. Among the many programs cut was construction on college campuses.

Revenues have been slowly recovering over the last two years, and lawmakers, lobbyists and executive branch bureaucrats hoped the 2014 legislative session would provide the opportunity to put some catch-up spending in the 2014-15 budget.

Even before the session started, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $100 million increase in higher ed operating funds, a plan widely supported in the legislature. And college leaders and lobbyists also were looking forward to a boost in construction funding.

The Capital Development Committee, a joint House-Senate panel that reviews construction projects, produced a list that included some college projects. But the committee’s plans were derailed on March 20 when JBC members announced they would back an alternative project list supported by Gov. John Hickenlooper, which included only two higher education buildings, one at the Auraria Higher Education Center and one at the University of Colorado campus in Colorado Springs.

That’s when the higher education lobby and sympathetic legislators sprang into action and came up with the plan to spend possible future money on those campus buildings. The amendment was added to the bill last Thursday and given final approval in the House on Friday.

The amended bill protects two programs that the 2013 legislature had designated as recipients of sany urplus funds – the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($30 million) and the State Education Fund ($31.1 million).

In theory, that means the SEF would get less money than it would have under a 2013 law that allocated 75 percent of any surplus to the fund. (The SEF is a dedicated account that is used to supplement state General Fund spending on schools and for other K-12 spending.)

Even with the cap on the SEF transfer, Hamner called the bill “a fair compromise,” adding, “I have to look at the bigger view” of both K-12 and higher ed needs.

If there’s enough surplus to cover the water board and SEF transfers (plus $10.3 million to be kept in the General Fund), then any money above that would go to a ranked list of higher education construction projects. There’s a cap of $119.5 million on the campus spending. If the surplus revenue is more than about $190 million, the money above that goes to the SEF.

In past years lawmakers have used the future-revenues gambit to benefit the education fund, and those gambles have paid off. For instance, the SEF last fall received slightly more than $1 billion in 2012-13 surplus funds.

And K-12 advocates are trying to go back to that well. A House amendment to House Bill 14-1298, the annual School Finance Act, proposes diverting 75 percent of any 2014-15 surplus into the SEF.

Earmarking to-be-collected funds, whatever the purpose, bothers Steadman, one of the legislature’s budget experts. “It’s not the way to do it,” he said in an interview. Noting that the legislature meets every year, he notes, “We’ll be here next year to spend next year’s money.” Budgeting should be done “in real time,” he said.

He also said earmarking too much money ahead of time might limit the 2015 legislature’s ability to make annual mid-year budget adjustments.

The Senate is considering HB 14-1342 this week, along with the main 2014-15 budget, House Bill 14-1336. Steadman says he’ll have some proposed amendments for the higher ed construction bill, so the debate will continue.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and other information.

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.

School Finance

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders could scale back their appeal for tax increases

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

With little public support and mounting criticism, Indianapolis’ largest school district may scale back its nearly $1 billion request for increased funding from taxpayers.

Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor told Chalkbeat on Wednesday that the board would likely consider a proposal next week that would reduce the potential tax increase.

All the board members present voted in favor of asking voters for up to $936 million over eight years at a meeting this past December. But there is a consensus among board members that the original proposal would raise taxes too much, O’Connor said.

“The school system needs more revenue,” O’Connor said. But “we think that’s high.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration is working on coming up with a revised proposal, district chief of staff Ahmed Young confirmed. But officials have not yet finalized how much the amount might be trimmed or what services would be reduced to bring down the price tag.

The revelation comes on the heels of stinging public criticism leveled against the district for asking for such a large tax increase. On Wednesday, Indiana State Board of Education member and Indianapolis resident Gordon Hendry slammed IPS’ plan to raise taxes during a state board meeting.

“This may be the most nonchalant billion-dollar tax increase ever approved by anyone,” said Hendry, a Democrat.

The original plan, which was approved by the state for inclusion on the May ballot less than a week ago, includes a measure that would raise up to $92 million per year for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and one that would pay for up to $200 million in improvements to school buildings.

If voters signed off on the operating referendum, their property taxes would rise by as much as $0.59 on each $100 of assessed value, while the capital referendum would raise $0.1384 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The board will not alter the referendum that provides money for building improvements, O’Connor said. But it will consider changing how much it seeks for operating expenses, the part responsible for the bulk of the tax increase.

In the months since the original proposal was unveiled in November, few advocates or community organizations have spoken out in support of the referendums. Instead, groups such as the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce stayed quiet as they discussed the plan internally.

It’s important to the city that the school district is successful, said Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Chamber. There also is general agreement that the district needs more funding, he said. But the group is waiting to hear more from the administration about how the money will be spent.

“It’s a large amount,” Fisher said. “Is this the right amount?”

Tony Mason from the Indianapolis Urban League raised similar questions.

“IPS definitely requires more support to serve the vast needs of its diverse student population,” Mason wrote in a statement. But the district must make the case in detail for the substantial amount it is requesting.

“IPS needs to be mindful of the already existing and unique tax burdens of those living in the IPS district,” he added.

The district has said the referendums are essential because of declining federal, state, and local revenue. According to the district, the operating referendum would pay for special education services, transportation, and regular maintenance. But the bulk of the money, 72 percent, would help pay regular raises to teachers. The referendum to pay for improvements to school buildings would fund updates such as new lighting and door security.

If it passed, the original operating referendum would increase the district’s annual revenue by nearly $3,000 per student. By comparison, a referendum passed in Washington Township in 2016 raised annual revenue by less than $600 per student.

When the initial plan was announced in December, Ferebee told Chalkbeat that political considerations were not used to determine the amount of the referendums.

“We didn’t arrive at this number based on what we thought would be politically appropriate and soothing, but what we actually need to continue to thrive as an organization,” Ferebee said at the time.

But it appears the political challenge of asking voters to dramatically raise their own taxes is more salient for the board.

Board members have privately heard concerns from constituents about the size of the referendums, O’Connor said. He said the district also needs to present more detail to taxpayers about exactly how the money would be spent.

Because $92 million per year is the estimated maximum amount the district could raise if the measure passes, it was always a ceiling, said Young. After the board voted to pursue the initial proposal, the district has continued to do “due diligence.”

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he added.

On Tuesday, school board member Kelly Bentley told Chalkbeat that reducing the amount the district is seeking could help increase the chance that voters approve the referendums and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

“I believe strongly that we are asking no more than what we need,” Bentley said. “But I would rather be successful than not successful in the referenda.”

Correction: February 15, 2018: This story has been corrected to attribute the statement from the Indianapolis Urban League to Tony Mason.