Effort to continue free school meal programs, stalled in Colorado legislature, finds new life

For months, an attempt to stave off the end of free school meals for Colorado students languished in the legislature under the weight of its $90 million price tag.

With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, a new approach to the same goal — down to the same sponsoring lawmakers and same bill name — would put it to voters if they want to continue the program.

HB22-1414 would ask voters in November, via ballot measure, if they want to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest households to raise up to $100 million to pay for the program beginning in the fall 2024 school year. The current federal program is set to expire at the end of June without Congressional action, meaning there will be a gap year of school meals regardless.

The original effort, SB22-087, would have tapped into state general funds to pay for free school meals. The Democratic sponsors of both bills are hopeful they can still use one-time money, such as from the federal stimulus package, for gap year funding.

But Senate leadership is reticent of creating of expectations that free school meals will continue with uncertain funding, especially with a ballot measure in November, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said.

Sponsor Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, said she thinks the people of Colorado will support the program and the tax increase to pay for it — especially when they realize how many kids are going hungry at schools. Public schools served about 1.3 million more meals in October 2021, when the free meal program was in full swing, compared to pre-pandemic October 2019.

“When we get to a point where students are not being fed, and we have hungry students, that’s going to really impact the people of Colorado because that’s not who we are,” Michaelson Jenet said. “… People outside the (Capitol) think differently, act differently, behave differently, and it’s our job to talk to them and communicate with them what’s going on. And they’re going to be in an uproar over hungry students. Nobody wants a hungry child.”

Sponsor Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, said she hates to think about how many children will go hungry during a gap year. Growing up, she spent time on her school’s free and reduced lunch program, and remembers the stigma of it. She testified earlier in the session to either skipping meals altogether or waiting until the other students had left the lunchroom to eat.

People support the measure in general — advocates say they have polling that shows as much — but constitutional requirements on tax-related ballot measures pose an uphill challenge, she said. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, requires such measures be presented in all-caps starting with “shall taxes be increased…”

“It’s very popular when you talk about how it would be funded and where it would go,” Pettersen said of the free meals proposal. “The difficulty is the TABOR ballot measure language. It creates a sticker shock with the way it’s phrased and so people, even if they support the concept, would they be able to get over the way it’s presented to them within TABOR?”

The measure as proposed wouldn’t increase taxes directly, but rather limit how much income the wealthiest Coloradans can shelter from state income tax through itemized deductions. Now, a household earning $400,000 or more can deduct $60,000 from their income for joint filers, or $30,000 for individual filers, if they have the corresponding expenses. Under this bill, it would limit deductions for a household bringing in $300,000 or more to $16,000 for joint filers and $12,000 for individuals.

Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado, said they wanted to ask more well-off families to fund the program, especially as inflation and higher food costs hit poorer families hardest.

“Families are dealing with high inflation and food costs, and we don’t want families to go back to struggling how to find food for their kids when they’re facing these costs,” Jacobson said.

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