Reprieve for Education Fund

Legislation to outlaw city's half-cent sales tax defeated -- for now

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The Steamboat Springs Education Fund is safe -- at least temporarily.

Proposed legislation that would outlaw the city's half-cent sales tax for education was easily defeated Monday by an amendment from state Rep. Al White.

But the House Education Committee's 8-3 vote in favor of White's amendment doesn't guarantee that language preventing or restricting Colorado school districts from accepting revenues generated or donated by other governmental entities won't reappear once the bill reaches the House or Senate floors.

Still, Steamboat Springs School District and Education Fund Board officials were thrilled with Monday's vote.

"I think (Rep. White) did a fantastic job presenting his amendment," said School Board President Paula Stephenson, who, along with Fund Board President Jim Gill, attended Monday's House Education meeting in the state Capitol. "I'm ecstatic. I hope he continues to see that support throughout the rest of this bill's life in the House."

White's amendment, if it survives the legislative process, means the Steamboat school district can continue benefiting from a half-cent sales tax for education that generates about $1.8 million each year for district programs, including small class-size, content standards and technology. It also means districts across the state can maintain agreements with cities or counties that provide funding for a variety of programs, from D.A.R.E. to after-school child care.

The school finance bill presented to the committee last week by its author, state Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, included a one-sentence provision that would ban all of the state's 178 school districts from accepting revenue from another governmental entity such as a city or county. The provision, despite its statewide impact, was added in response to the Steamboat Springs School District and the city's sales tax for education.

King, the House majority leader, said he thinks the sales tax violates the equity sought through the Public School Finance Act and the state constitution's mandate to provide a "thorough and uniform" education for all public school students. School districts aren't allowed to levy sales taxes for revenue.

"I think it's very wrong for us to say to 177 districts in the state of Colorado, 'Here are the laws and we hope you abide by them,'" King said, referring to every district in the state except for Steamboat. "I think we send a chilling message to the districts in the state who follow the requirements."

Steamboat voters approved on three occasions the half-cent sales tax. Revenues generated by the tax are controlled by the 13-member nonprofit Education Fund Board, which decides how to spend that money based on funding recommendations by three citizens commissions.

White and other lawmakers on the committee said King's provision would impact school districts negatively across the state by preventing them from entering into any sort of intergovernmental agreement, such as Montrose's juvenile diversion program and Moffat County's receipt of mineral sales and lease funds.

"It has come to my attention there are a number of districts that take these types of funds," White said.

King conceded that the language in the original provision was too broad, and he offered his own amendment that would allow districts to accept revenue generated by other governmental entities as long as that revenue was applied to a district's mill levy override cap. All state districts are permitted to collect up to 20 percent of their total program -- the amount of money they receive under the provisions of the Public School Finance Act -- through a taxpayer-approved mill levy override. Capital expenditures don't count toward the 20 percent cap; general operating expenses such as textbooks and teacher salaries do count toward the cap.

King's amendment was struck down by an 8-3 vote before White's amendment, which eliminated the original provision, was approved by an identical vote.

The committee was laid over before taking a final vote on the amended school finance bill. That vote likely will occur either Wednesday or next Monday. Once approved, the bill will go to the House Appropriations Committee before appearing before the entire House.

White said he's confident his amendment will survive through the House.

"My feelings are I'll be able to hold it," White said. "There are enough districts that are impacted by this issue."

State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said last week that he will fight in the Senate to ensure that Steamboat and other communities that want to provide additional funding to improve education for their students are allowed to do so.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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