A recent financial study confirms what most politicians already knew: Amendment 23, the school finance initiative passed last November, is having huge immediate and long-term impacts on the state budget.
The program adds more than $5 billion to school funding between January 2000 and 2025. The new mandate for public school funding, combined with a heavy commitment to capital construction (especially roads), tax cuts the last two years, and a slowdown in state tax revenue collection, has created serious budget tightening and the need to juggle accounts between funding commitments. Although transportation funding survived this year, it will become more difficult in succeeding years.
Amendment 23 may be the most serious challenge to state budgeting since the passage of the tax-limiting TABOR Amendment in 1992. The legislature lost power over much of state revenue during the decade. Now with the passage of Amendment 23, the state legislature is increasingly a check-writer for education.
Amendment 23 supporters are exercising major power in the legislature even though the initiative only won 20 out of 63 counties and would have lost without huge majorities in Denver and Boulder.
The most recent battle in the state legislature over control of Amendment 23 funds shows the influence of school funding on state politics. Democrats demanded the money be provided to local school districts with no strings attached. Their position is that local districts know best how to spend the funds, and that it is essentially local education groups that passed the tax.
Republicans, most of whom did not support the tax, argued that voters expected the funding to improve the system and not just make the status quo more expensive. Democrats basically won the argument with the help of their labor and education establishment allies.
Education funding will continue to be a yearly battle especially as state budgets grow tighter and other needs rise in priority.