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11th-Hour Bill 'Patches Over' Colo. School Fiscal Gap

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At the 11th hour, Colorado lawmakers have agreed on a bill designed to eliminate a $156-million gap in school finance for fiscal 1993.

Passage of the measure this month by the Republican-majority legislature drew a lukewarm response from Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, who called the measure "a patch-over until the real crisis.''

Even so, Mr. Romer indicated he would sign the bill rather than call legislators back into yet another special session. Colorado legislators have been absorbed for several years with education-funding problems as the recession has made it difficult to fully implement a 1988 school-finance-reform law.

Governor Romer is looking to the voters to resolve his continuing deadlock with the legislature. Last month he announced a proposed ballot initiative that would raise the state sales tax from 3 cents to 4 cents while implementing school reforms.

After considering numerous finance proposals throughout its 120-day session, the legislature approved a compromise on May 6, about an hour before the midnight deadline.

The finance plan, a combination of an income-tax hike and a shifting of funds among state budget accounts, passed the House by a vote of 38 to 27 and the Senate by a 19-to-16 vote.

The centerpiece of the plan is the elimination of a double deduction for Coloradans who itemize their state income-tax returns. About 45 percent of state taxpayers currently itemize, and their taxes will rise by an estimated average of 5 percent.

The tax change is expected to raise about $77 million toward the school-funding deficit. The other major element of the plan is a reduction of the inflation adjustment in state aid to school districts, from a promised 3 percent to minus 0.5 percent. That change will save the state about $72 million.

The rest of the projected $156-million shortfall would be eliminated by cutting the state reserve, changing the way students are counted, and shifting other funds.

The result for many districts will be a cut in their state aid for 1992-93 of about 1 percent. The Aurora district, for example, will see its state contribution decline from about $109 million to $107.6 million.

The bill also slightly reduces districts' payments to the state retirement system, however, so most districts will end up with roughly the same amount to spend as last year.

Tax Referendum Backed

Cindy Parmenter, Mr. Romer's press secretary, said the Governor probably would sign the legislature's school-finance plan before the June 5 deadline.

"It's just a Band-Aid measure,'' she said. "It averts the crisis for this fiscal year,'' but does not provide a long-term solution.

Observers predict Mr. Romer will try to persuade voters to adopt his sales-tax plan with the argument that the legislature has been unable to adopt long-term solutions to funding education.

The Denver Post has already taken legislators to task for their complicated finance plan, editorializing that "four years of gimmickry and broken promises have reduced Colorado's public finance structure to the order and clarity of the [U.S.] House Bank.''

The Governor, meanwhile, appears to be gaining momentum for his tax plan, which would raise a projected $320 million annually for schools and launch a variety of reforms.

A recent Post poll found that 52 percent of respondents would vote for the sales-tax increase for school funding, while 44 percent were opposed and 4 percent undecided.

The Colorado Education Association endorsed the plan May 8.

The 28,000-member teachers' union backed the plan after Governor Romer warned its annual convention that the state will face a $308-million school-finance deficit in the next fiscal year without it.

Although some teachers reportedly expressed anxiety about the Governor's plan, a majority of the 508 delegates at the convention voted for it.

Mr. Romer asked the union to collect petition signatures for the ballot measure, which must receive more than 42,000 signatures by Aug. 4.

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