The elephant in the room

Activism is a beautiful thing. It upsets the established order, unnerving conservatives but warming the cockles of liberals’ hearts. First, the #Metoo Movement; next, student protests about weapons of mass murder; now, teacher rallies. Teddy Roosevelt and early 20th-century progressives are doing cartwheels.

The teacher rallies have gotten the right so aquiver Colorado Senate Republicans proposed a bill to negate the First Amendment, proposing teachers share cell space with reporters Trump itches to incarcerate for reporting non-adulatory news about him. The teachers’ crime: exercising their rights of speech, assembly, and petition.

Besides a First Amendment issue, the rallies’ bottom line is the bottom line: The State of Colorado has reneged on its commitment to our public schools and employees, particularly teachers, betraying the trust and violating the legal contract it has with them along with its constitutional obligations. The reason? Funding.

Republicans tell schools, teachers, and students to toughen up. Starving and your trousers sagging? Punch another hole in your belt. That, however, is what schools have done over the last several decades. Amendment 23 was to help correct that, but the state failed. Coming to its rescue, the Colorado Supreme Court decided the words of Article IX, Section 2 of the state constitution and Amendment 23 don’t mean what they mean. One suspects those justices failed reading comprehension.

Democrats, on the other hand, wring their hands and insist they’re doing all they can to save public schools and the Public Employees Retirement Association. But are they? The elephant in the room is not the Republican mascot, but Article X, Section 20, known in the vernacular as TABOR. It has a death grip on the state and been enshrined as Colorado’s Holy Grail despite its author and evil genius being a convicted felon. State leaders—governor, legislators alike—prostrate themselves or cower before its altar.

The Colorado Department of the Treasury, headed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton boasts, “Under TABOR, the state has returned more than $2 billion to taxpayers rather than using these funds to pay for K-12 education, higher education, transportation, public health services, public safety and other services.”

In her response to my plea urging her not to cede ground on the already-below-inflation annual cost of living—COLA—increase for PERA Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper proposes to slash from 2 percent to 1.25 percent, Majority Leader KC Becker (D-Boulder) reviewed the facts of life.

“The reforms made in 2010 with SB1,” she said, “were important and necessary but don’t deal with the fact that PERA is facing growing liabilities and doesn’t have the money to deal with them.”

“The COLA,” she explained, “is the quickest way to right the ship because the impact is immediate.” In other words, balance the budget on the backs of seniors.

Besides financial, the issue about PERA, as well as pensions across the board and Social Security, is an ethical one. The Republican Congress blessed America’s deepest pockets with a $1.5 trillion tax cut, giving the idea of government pork new meaning. In Colorado, Democrats collaborate with Republicans to whack active and retired teachers’ means of financial survival.

In last week’s Denver Post, Senator Michael Bennet wrote a deliberative op-ed about the dire shape of our schools’ funding and declining teacher salaries. Bennet mentioned their root causes.

“We fail our teachers and our kids,” he writes, “because we are tangled up in a thicket of fiscal constraints, especially 20th century measures known as the Gallagher Amendment and Bruce Amendment. These laws ratchet down our investment in schools, while making it more difficult to raise revenue, especially in already revenue-strapped parts of the state. As a result, poor districts become poorer while the more fortunate struggle to break even. In recent years, this has resulted in a massive shortage of teachers in our rural school districts; nothing could be more unfair.”

Good, but Bennet, like his Democratic leader colleagues, fails to take the next step and call for the only solution: Repealing Gallagher and Bruce (TABOR).

Becker concluded by saying, “Decreasing benefits or contributions to someone’s retirement is not a task any Democrat wants to take on.” More than that, it’s a repugnant task no Democrat should soil his/her hands doing. That and depriving Colorado children of their constitutional right to a top-quality education.

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