Sunday, March 20, 2011

OUR KIDS CAN'T WAIT by Sen. Rollie Heath...

In my experience, I've found that we all reach points in life at which taking action is no longer optional. I reached that point in late February when I read a budget proposal for FY 2011-12 that included a $375 million cut to Colorado's K-12 education budget and a $36 million cut to higher education. The legislature is attempting to find other options, but it's likely that we'll pass a budget with deep cuts to education this year, and I cannot idly sit back and watch the same thing happen in the years to come.

So, I decided to file an initiative that will be on the 2011 ballot, assuming we gather enough petition signatures. It would simply help prevent future education cuts by allowing Colorado's state sales and income taxes to revert back to the rates we had in 1999. Sales and use tax would increase from 2.9 percent to 3.0, and income tax would increase from 4.63 percent to 5.0. All new revenue would be used to fund K-12 and higher education, and the rates would apply from Jan. 1, 2012 until Dec. 31, 2014.

Let me assure you that this decision was not made without soul-searching and discussion with others, but I firmly believe this is the right thing to do. The most recent K-12 proposal would cut funding by about $497 per pupil, when we're already far behind the national average in per-pupil funding. Also, we already rank at or near last in the U.S. in state support for our public colleges and universities.

But frankly, my concern is more about what education means for our state and less about the numbers. Quality K-12 education helps our kids develop the skills they will need for success in life, no matter which path they take. Our institutions of higher education produce skilled professionals, educators, entrepreneurs and leaders of the future. It's obvious to me that we'll need the best systems of education possible to build the civil and prosperous society that I believe most of us want, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing.

To formally announce the initiative, I held a press conference on Feb. 28 at the Capitol. It was well-attended, and there was a great deal of media coverage in the hours and days after the conference. I've posted some of the stories on the "Sen. Heath in the News" section of this Web site, and I anticipate more in the weeks and months to follow.

From the Feb. 28 press conference at the Capitol

Since the press conference, I've received an outpouring of support from Coloradans who don't want to see a steady diet of future cuts to the education budgets. I've also certainly heard opposition, largely from those who oppose tax increases in general, or those who believe our schools might be able to spend their current funding with greater efficiency.

I obviously support going forward with the initiative. However, I hope people will also understand that I support a robust discussion about all facets of our educational future. As a businessman, I've always needed to focus on cost management, and I know we need to be wise with our education dollars. We must do what it takes to make sure that our funding leads to the best educational results possible. And since this initiative would sunset in three years, I'm absolutely aware that we must work on longer-term plans for adequate funding and performance.

In the meantime, our kids can't wait for the education they deserve. You'll hear this phrase often in the coming months - "You're only in fifth grade (or pick another grade) once." To me, it would be unconscionable to shortchange our children and our young adults when it comes to education, and I hope you feel the same.

I offer my most sincere gratitude to those who have sent messages of support already, and stay tuned. There is more to come.