An epidemic of good sense swept through the Colorado Supreme Court earlier this week. On Tuesday the court announced its decision in the state’s long-running Lobato school finance case.
In 2009 the court split 4-3, ruling that school funding was a justiciable issue. That paved the way for a bizarre 2011 trial court decision holding that the state was underfunding education by billions of dollars each year. The opinion decided to ignore inconvenient parts of the Colorado Constitution that limit the ability of the legislature to raise taxes. Complying with the trial court ruling would have required the legislature to violate the constitution. But what are constitutional limits when we have strained claims of underfunding based on dubious costing-out studies?
In Tuesday’s 4-2 decision the court wisely declined the plaintiffs’ invitation to launch a constitutional crisis. Holding that the state’s school finance system was rationally related to the constitution’s requirement to provide “a thorough and uniform” system of public schools, the majority rejected the trial court’s decision in its entirety.
Even though the plaintiffs lost, the litigation’s long-term political effects are still unclear. Three weeks ago Colorado’s legislature passed a school finance bill which will increase funding and, allegedly, accountability. Promoted as a “reform” the bill seems long on spending and short on accountability. Its supporters deftly used the trial court decision in Lobato to generate support for the bill. If we don’t do this, they argued, the courts will force us to. However, the measure can only take effect if the voters approve additional tax increases to pay for increased funding. That vote will happen in November. Hence, while Lobato helped put the proposed tax increases on the ballot, the court’s decisive ruling upholding the constitutionality of the current system will make it much more difficult to convince Colorado voters to open their wallets.