Rocky articles uncritically quoted GOP state representative on new impact estimate of mill levy freeze


Two Rocky Mountain News articles on consecutive days uncritically quoted state Rep. Cory Gardner's (R-Yuma) criticisms of a measure to freeze property tax, or mill levy, rates to fund public education. The News reported that Gardner said "property taxes just went through the roof" without noting that taxes in 49 school districts will go down, and it reported his claim that Gov. Bill Ritter should "come clean" about a new, higher estimate of the revenue raised by the plan without noting that the original, significantly lower estimate of the plan's cost came from the legislature.

In September 13 and September 14 articles, the Rocky Mountain News uncritically quoted Republican state Rep. Cory Gardner's (Yuma) criticisms of Senate Bill 199, which freezes property tax, or mill levy, rates as a means of redistributing sources of public education funding in the state. The September 13 article reported without substantiation Gardner's criticism that "[w]hile people are facing foreclosures on their homes, their property taxes just went through the roof" because of the mill levy freeze. Similarly, the September 14 article reported Gardner's call for Gov. Bill Ritter (D) to "come clean" and his assertion that "[t]hey're underestimating the impact [of the mill levy freeze] to homeowners, and they're doing it in the worse [sic] housing market."

The News, however, failed to report that according to an updated estimate of the impact of S.B. 199 -- requested by Gardner and prepared by the nonpartisan Colorado Legislative Council Staff -- property taxes under the measure will decrease in 49 school districts in Colorado, including those in Gardner's House District 63. The News also failed to report that, contrary to Gardner's suggestion that Ritter was to blame for the original, lower estimate of the impact from the freeze, the Legislative Staff Council prepared the original fiscal impact statement in April that estimated the additional revenues from the freeze to be $47.4 million, as well as the revised figure of $114.1 million.

In contrast to the News, which provided no information from the estimate prepared for Gardner to substantiate his assertions, a September 14 article in The Denver Post included a chart showing the "effect of Gov. Bill Ritter's property-tax-rate freeze on Denver-area school districts" based on the Legislative Council Staff's September estimate. The chart showed that, based on the new figures, property taxes in Aurora, Douglas County and Englewood school districts would be lower than under the earlier estimate the staff made in April.

The September 13 News article by Tillie Fong reported that Gardner "is crying foul over $66 million of tax savings homeowners would have seen if not for a law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Ritter this year." However, in the Legislative Council Staff's report, the "$66 million" figure refers to the current estimated amount of property-tax revenue over and above the original estimate during the last legislative session -- not the amount property owners would have kept had SB 199 not passed. As the report states:

Statewide, property tax revenue is expected to be $114.1 million higher as a result of Senate Bill 07-199. This dollar amount is $65.9 million higher than was estimated during the legislative session. Of the total estimated increase in property tax revenue of $191.8 million, $77.7 million would have occurred under the law that existed before the Senate Bill 07-199 was enacted.

The News also noted that "Ritter signed into law Senate Bill 07-199, freezing property tax rates indefinitely at current rates." The article continued:

The measure eliminates tax cuts that otherwise would have taken place under a 1994 school-finance law -- an estimated $48 million for fiscal year 2007-2008.

"It's the fact that we had said -- from day one -- it's a bottomless pit and that it will be working families and seniors that will be paying it," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma on Wednesday.

"While people are facing foreclosures on their homes, their property taxes just went through the roof, and the governor did it all without a vote of the people."

However, the News ignored the Legislative Council Staff report's statement that while property taxes are "expected to increase in 129 districts," they are, at the same time, expected to "decrease in 49 districts." The report added, "Property tax revenue decreases are caused by either reductions in assessed value or a reduction in the district's mill levy to the 27-mill cap." In fact, as the September 12 estimate shows, many districts in Gardner's House District 63 -- which includes Yuma, Morgan, Washington, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Kiowa, Crowley, and Kit Carson counties -- will see a drop in property taxes from FY 2006-07 to FY 2007-08.

The September 14 News article, by April Washington, reported, "Five Republican lawmakers wrote Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday demanding answers about new estimates they say double the amount of tax savings homeowners would have seen if not for a new law that lets public schools keep the money." The News again uncritically quoted Gardner's criticisms:

"They're underestimating the impact to homeowners, and they're doing it in the worse housing market," said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. "The governor needs to come clean."

Signing the letter were Gardner and GOP Reps. Frank McNulty, of Highlands Ranch, and Rob Witwer, of Genesee, as well as Sens. Greg Brophy, of Wray, and Josh Penry, of Fruita.

The letter comes a day after a report by legislative counsel staff that indicates property tax revenues statewide would be $114.1 million higher this year. Republicans said that's more than double the amount initially "advertised" when the measure passed.

The Republicans said the expected revenue is $66 million above original projections and want to know if Ritter plans to return that amount to taxpayers.

However, the News again omitted the fact that Gardner cited a report from the same nonpartisan office that published the original estimate of $47.4 million revenue from SB 199. The News also stated that the measure "eliminates tax cuts that were mandated under a 1994 school finance law," but did not note that some property owners nonetheless will pay lower property taxes next year, including some whose property values decrease.

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