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The Associated Press April 20, 2010, 8:04AM ET

Education tax hike passes first hearing in Colo.

The House Education Committee backed a proposal Monday that would allow the state Legislature to raise taxes to pay for education, a plan Republicans say would violate the state constitutional limits on taxes and spending.

House Concurrent Resolution 1002 seeks to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters if they would give the Legislature approval to raise taxes as needed to pay for education ranging from preschools to universities.

The proposal needs the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to pass. That would mean it would have to garner bipartisan support, a long shot in an election year.

Supporters said schools have slashed funding, increased class size and cut programs. They believe voters will come to the rescue with more money for next year if lawmakers just ask.

"We're asking voters to make the decision to remove from legislators the restraints imposed by TABOR on spending for education. They can say yes or no," said Rep. Mike Merrifield, a Democrat from Manitou Springs.

Marty Nielson, president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, which opposes the referred measure, said there is no way to stop lawmakers from using the money for other programs. She said TABOR is not open-ended and voters need to be told how much the state needs.

"If this is passed, it would be an open-ended blank check for the Legislature to raise taxes," Nielson told the House Education Committee.

But teachers, parents, foundations and civic groups backing the measure say Colorado's recession and budget crisis has brought crippling cuts to public education with an expected $400 to $600 average cut per pupil in the coming year.

They said those cuts will force more districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, slash technology budgets, close schools and possibly even move to four-day weeks.

Funding for Colorado schools has been mostly protected through the recession but, starting in July, schools are set to lose $365 million of the funding they normally receive, a 6.4 percent drop.

Rep. Tom Massey, a Republican from Poncha Springs, said that the proposal violates the spirit of TABOR by allowing the Legislature to impose tax increases without voter approval.

"Colorado voters approved TABOR in 1992 and now during a recession is not the time to push for a tax increase," Massey said.

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