DENVER (AP) – A Democratic state senator wants to ask voters to raise Colorado’s income and sales tax rates, saying the governor’s proposal to further slash education funding by $332 million next year was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Boulder Sen. Rollie Heath said Monday he would bypass the Legislature and collect signatures to take his tax proposal to voters this fall, asking them to raise the state’s individual and corporate tax rates to 5 percent, up from 4.63 percent. Heath’s proposal would also increase the sales and use tax rates to 3 percent, up from 2.9 percent. Heath said the tax hikes would expire in three years and that over that time the state would collect an estimated $1.63 billion for K-12 funding and higher education.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed slashing education funding to help balance the budget. As federal stimulus money and one-time fixes ran out, Hickenlooper has said he had no choice but to cut higher education, which comprises about 40 percent of the state’s budget.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” Heath said. Hickenlooper said in his proposal that further budget cuts would also be needed next year, something Heath said gave him “just a really sick feeling in my stomach.”
Hickenlooper said in a statement that he understands the proposed cuts are painful.
“We are keeping our first focus on balancing the budget, finding efficiencies and growing jobs in Colorado,” he said. “Senator Heath’s heart-felt proposal deserves to be part of a larger conversation about Colorado’s future and we welcome that conversation.”
Republicans were quick to criticize Heath’s idea and say Hickenlooper is right when he says there is no appetite for tax increases.
“It really shows that there is a disconnect between the Democrat Party and the people of Colorado,” said Republican Sen. Greg Brophy. “Democrats want to increase taxes. We believe, Republicans believe, that the solution to this problem is to live within our means and to reduce spending and when the recession is over, our state revenue will recover.”
Senate Republicans also introduced a resolution Monday opposing all tax increases this legislative session.
Colorado faces a budget shortfall near $1 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July. Hickenlooper’s suggested budget could prompt teacher layoffs and bigger class sizes in many districts. His plan also calls for closing some state parks and a prison in southeast Colorado.
The governor’s budget proposal, which would need approval from the Legislature before taking effect, has prompted howls of protest from some in his party.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a fellow Democrat, has told senators to come up with some $200 million in additional suggested cuts by next week to agencies other than education.
However, Shaffer and the governor both have ruled out tax hike proposals, at least this year.
“I don’t think the proposal Sen. Heath is bringing forward is one that can realistically make it through the Legislature,” Shaffer told reporters before Heath announced his decision to take his proposal out of lawmakers’ hands.
Still, the Colorado Constitution requires that all tax increases be approved by voters. Heath will need a coalition of business groups to support him outside the Capitol and he admitted Monday he doesn’t yet have.
“We’re going to find out who is going to stand behind us,” Heath said.
His proposal comes as the Legislature considers a proposal to make it harder for citizen-initiated proposals to get on the Colorado ballot, which has one of the lowest signature thresholds in the country. Last November, a proposal needed a little more than 76,000 signatures from Colorado’s 3.2 million registered voters.
Heath said his idea is about preventing more cuts to education, not about racing to the ballot now in case it becomes more difficult.
“And I think it’s time for us to stand up and at least have the courage to ask the citizens of this state, what do they think? And that’s all I’m asking them to do,” he said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer (Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.)
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)