2013 ballot cheat sheet

by Missy Votel

It may seem like a snoozy ballot in this off-year election, but as usual, the devil is in the details. Several of this year’s initiatives involve complex concepts, mathematic formulas and everyone’s favorite topic, taxes. Although not exactly as sexy as a presidential election, many of these topics are filed under what we here at the Telegraph like to call “DBI” - Dull But Important. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, we have kept the cheat sheet to the major questions on ballots circulated to voters within the City of Durango.

So take a seat in a comfy chair, pull out your ballot (mail-in! yeah!) and read along. We promise to make it as short and sweet as possible – no quantum physics or quadratic equations involved. Just the pros, cons and our semi-educated, gut-feelings (with some help from a voter’s best friend, the little blue book.)


Election Day is Nov. 5

If you’ve not mailed your ballot (via Albuquerque, no less), your best bet is to drop it off at one of these locations:

- County Clerk’s Office, 98 Everett St., Bodo;

- County Courthouse, 1060 E. 2nd Ave., Durango.

Amendment 66 - School Tax

The big ticket item on this year’s ballot, Amendment 66 would increase state income taxes to the tune of $950 million in its first year to help fund K-12 education.

Although extremely complicated (A+ to anyone who has a solid grasp on all its intricacies) basically, the increase will restore per pupil funding pre-recession levels of about $7,400. The increased funding would be earmarked, under the already passed SB213, for such noble causes as early-childhood education, including all-day kindergarten; at-risk students; gifted and talented programs; and English language learners. Money would also be set aside for under-served districts; extended school days and school years; teachers’ and administrators’ pay; and charter school facilities.

Under the amendment, Durango stands to gain about $500 per student.

However, a change to the State Constitution is required because currently, education funding is hamstrung by a well-meaning by poorly thought-out constitutional amendment passed in 2000. Right now, schools are funded using a complex formula in state statues based on state, local, sales, property and income taxes. However, in recent years, tax revenues have decreased, meaning money for schools has decreased as well. The 13-year average for school spending is 46 percent of the state’s budget, but this dropped to an 11-year low of 40 percent in 2012-13, equating to a shortfall of 1 billion last year alone.

This amendment would do away with the old constitutional cap passed in 2000 and set a new baseline of at least 43 percent of state tax revenues for K-12.

In order to enact these changes, and here’s the kicker, Amendment 66 would increase the state’s current flat-rate income tax of 4.63 to a two-tiered system. Individuals with taxable income of less than $75,000 per year would pay a rate of 5 percent; those making more would be taxed 5 percent on the first $75,000 and 5.9 percent on anything above that. The resulting windfall for state coffers is expected to make up for the recent shortfalls and propel Colorado’s ailing public schools well into the 21st century.

Those for say:

-?Amendment 66 will tap a new source of income, making it possible for the Legislature to fund other state needs that have been put on the back burner, including higher education. Under the current system, the state is headed for a budgetary nightmare in the next decade, in which all state-funded programs other than Medicare and K-12 will need to be cut.

- Colorado, once a leader in education, spends thousands of dollars less on per pupil funding compared to surrounding states.

- For the average Colorado household making $57,000 a year, the tax increase will be modest, about $133 a year, or roughly 36 cents a day.

- The new system will provide more transparency via a website that tracks all school’s expenditures and student achievement.

Those against say:

- Amendment 66 will shift tax revenue from wealthier school districts to less wealthy ones.

- Lack of transparency or accountability; funds could be used for such things as the underfunded Public Employees’ Retirement Association; and there’s no guarantee more money will equate to better academic achievement.

-$1 billion is a big bite to chew off in these still tentative financial times and could hurt the economic recovery.

Our two cents: No one likes a tax increase, and one that requires a change to the State Constitution is especially onerous. But the fact is, due to the recession and a short-sighted formula, Colorado students are falling further and further behind in terms of resources and funding. 

A couple hundred dollars a year may be a lot to ask cash-strapped households, but it’s a small price to pay when it comes to education. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: children are the future – and Sponge Bob and XBox can only teach them so much.

While not perfect, Amendment 66 offers enough safeguards (for example, local school boards can have a say in whether or not to fund PERA), transparency (tracking website) and accountability (achievement reports) to offer a viable and promising solution.

Despite the price tag, this is one of the most exciting prospects in public education to come along in a great while.


Prop AA - Marijuana Tax

Fifty-five percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 last year, legalizing the retail sale and commercial cultivation of marijuana in the state.

This asks voters to set the groundwork for that new industry by approving an excise tax of 15 percent and sales tax of 10 percent on retail marijuana sales. The sales tax would be in addition to local and state sales taxes. The excise tax would be paid by retailers and wholesalers. The tax would not apply to medical marijuana.

If approved, the first $40 million from the excise tax would go to public school construction. The rest, including the sales tax, would go to counties that approved retail marijuana sales to use for regulatory enforcement.

If this proposition is not approved, it’s likely another tax would be brought before voters in 2014 and the cost of enforcing marijuana laws would be paid by the state’s general fund.

Colorado Counties Inc., the lobbying organization for county governments, wants state lawmakers to consider also distributing the revenue to counties that don’t permit marijuana sales, arguing that the impacts of pot sales will be felt statewide, regardless of where it is sold.

According to estimates, 2 million ounces of retail pot will be sold each year, bringing in some $67 million in taxes.

Those in favor say:

- Will ensure communities have the funds to pay for the expense of regulating and enforcing pot laws as well as the associated costs of public health, education and safety.

- Communities will benefit from the increased funding for school construction.

- Will prove to other states that marijuana can be responsibly regulated and even be a force of good.

-?Will make good on the promise to voters to use tax revenue for schools.

- Allows the General Assembly to decrease or increase the tax, to no more than 15 percent, eliminating the need for a vote to change the tax in the future

-Taxes are not so exorbitant as to cause pot users to flock to the “black market.”

Those against say:

-?Although wholesalers and retailers would pay for the excise tax, this cost would likely be passed onto customers.

-?Would cause pot users to flock back to the “black market” and make it extremely difficult for legal operations to compete with the illegal cartels and dealers.

-?Would pit “good pot users” (those in possession of less than an ounce) vs. “bad pot users” (those in possession of more than an ounce

Our two cents: We think Proposition AA is a well-thought out starting point in regulating the industry and delivering on the promise of tax revenues for altruistic purposes as well as enforcement. It allows the tax rate to be adjusted by the Legislature and fairly puts the cost of regulation on those who use the product instead of taxpayers.

As for the “black market” arguments, on both sides, we think there will surely be enough people, tourists and residents alike, flocking to dispensaries to outweigh those flocking to drug cartels.


City of Durango Question 2B - Bag Fee Ordinance

Like the plastic bags at the center of this issue, the controversy over the City of Durango’s new disposable bag fee continues to swirl around.

After years of study, the Durango City Council passed the Bag Fee Ordinance 4-1 last August, which would enact a 10 cent fee on disposable bags (paper and plastic) at large retailers starting next March. Half of the fee (5 cents) would go to back to the stores while the other 5 cents would go to the city for education purposes. End of discussion. Except, those upset over the new “bag ban” petitioned to have a repeal of the fee ordinance put on the ballot.

However, voter beware. The question here is slightly trickier than merely replying “paper” or “plastic.” The question asks voters whether or not they approve of the city bag fee ordinance. If you do, vote for the ordinance (for the fee, opposed to the repeal). If not, vote “against the ordinance” (for the repeal of the fee.)

Those in favor say:

-Wasn’t this issue already decided through elected officials?

-Aside from the visual blight, disposable bags are wasteful, use precious resources and harmful to the environment and sea creatures.

-Fees have been shown to reduce disposable bag usage by up to 90 percent.

-By enacting a bag fee, Durango can set an example for other cities and be a leader in personal responsibility and planetary stewardship.

Those against say:

-?The fee is just “silly,” an inconsequential feel-good measure that will not make any real difference in the grand scheme of things.

-Reusable bags harbor germs and can lead to the spread of disease.

-The bag fee is a tax that cost the average family $120/year and unfairly impact the poor, elderly and downtrodden.

Our two cents: First off, let’s get one thing straight: this is not a “bag ban.” People are free to go on using their disposable bags, as long as they pay for them. Sure, it may be your god-given right to use plastic bags, but it is also the right of the rest of the world’s inhabitants not to have your discarded bags piling up in landfills, choking water ways, living in trees, lining roadways or swimming with the dolphins.

Sure, it may seem silly to tell people how to bring home their groceries, but quibbling over 10 cents seems even sillier. (Plus, we are a little skeptical of the math. $120 a year equals 23 bags a week. Who are these people? The Duggar family?)

Yes, people do not like to guilted or nanny-armed into doing the right thing. And remembering to bring reusable bags is hard. But here’s an idea: maybe stores can provide a drop off where people can donate their overabundance of reusable bags for those without (don’t forget to wash them to avoid the dreaded STD’s.) So crazy, it just might work. At the very least, do it for Flicka.


Question 3A - Reducing 9-R school board size

Currently, the Durango 9-R school board is made up of seven members. This question asks to reduce the size to five. It is predicted that this change would result in a more efficient board and more competitive races.

Pros: Some of the arguments for that change include often having to fill seats during session, and take the time and effort to train those members. Also, candidates often run unopposed, something that is again occurring this year.

Cons: None that we’ve heard of.

Our two cents: We’re all for streamlining and making the most of public servants’ time.


Question 2A - 15-year contract between City and DFPD

After a few failed attempts, local fire and emergency personnel are coming back to voters once again in an effort to streamline redundancies and administration and improve services. While voters in the Animas and Hermosa Cliffs fire districts will be asked to approve a mill levy and give up their boards and roll operations into the newly formed Durango Fire Protection District, Durango voters will be asked to sign a contract for services from the DFPD. The Durango Fire and Rescue Authority (DFRA) will become a thing of the past, as will the four separate boards comprising it.

No one’s taxes will go up under the new structure – the city will continue to pay for emergency and firefighting services through its General Fund as it always has. It will just change who it makes the check out to. The DFPD would provide emergency services to the city at roughly the same rate it does now.

Those in favor say:

- A unified district will increase efficiency and improve services and allow for the DFPD to make long-term investments and provide certainty for the future

- No one will pay more services; it will cost roughly the same as it does now.

Those against say:

- As a contractual “client,” the city will no longer have a voice on the board.

Our two cents: There’s no question that there are too many cooks in the kitchen under the current structure. Question 2A and its associated measures offer a common-sense and agreeable solution. By rolling the four boards into one and doing away with overlapping costs, the DFPD will be a leaner, meaner, firefighting machine.