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Centennial Elementary School first grader Malaysia assembles her hamburger while eating lunch in the school cafeteria in 2021..
Centennial Elementary School first grader Malaysia assembles her hamburger while eating lunch in the school cafeteria Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Proposition FF is a measure on the November ballot that aims to guarantee free school meals for all Colorado public school students, regardless of their household income.

It comes after the end of a federal initiative that provided free meals to all kids through the first two years of the pandemic. 

In the current school year, free lunches in Colorado are limited to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a federal indicator of poverty. 

The measure, if approved by voters, would create a new school meals program funded by increasing taxes for households that earn more than $300,000 in federal adjusted gross income by reducing the amount they can claim in state income tax deductions. The measure would also require school meal providers to tap into federal funding programs and recoup as much in federal reimbursements as possible so fewer state funds are needed to feed students.

Proposition FF was referred to the ballot by Democrats in the Colorado legislature this year through the passage of House Bill 1414. It requires a simple majority vote to pass. 

Here’s what you need to know about Proposition FF:

What it would do

The measure would establish the Healthy School Meals for All program to reimburse school meal providers for making free breakfasts and lunches available to all kids. Any school meal provider could benefit from the program, whether they serve one or more school districts or charter schools. 

The program would be funded by restricting the amount of money that households earning at least $300,000 could deduct from their Colorado taxable income starting in tax year 2023. Those taxpayers would be able to deduct no more than $12,000 for single filers and no more than $16,000 for joint filers.

Currently, taxpayers who earn more than $400,000 can claim a maximum of $60,000 in state income tax deductions for a joint filer and a maximum of $30,000 for a single filer, caps that were passed under House Bill 1311. Taxpayers whose income is between $300,000 and $400,000 are not limited in how much they can deduct from their state taxable income.

The provision would impact an estimated 113,988 tax returns, or 5% of all Colorado returns.

The restriction would affect a taxpayer’s standard deduction or itemized deductions, which include charitable contributions, state and local taxes, and mortgage interest.

The proposition would mandate that the state education department complete a report every two years beginning in 2024 for the state legislature assessing the new program. The department would also be required to work with an independent auditor to produce a financial and performance audit of the program.

Currently, 183 school meal providers feed students throughout Colorado and cover the costs of providing free and reduced-price lunches by tapping into state and federal funds and charging families whose income exceeds federal poverty levels. Students might qualify for free or reduced-price meals, depending on their household income, but Colorado students who can receive reduced-price meals get free meals instead because the state pays for their portion of the meal cost.

Without the federal universal free school meals initiative during the past two school years, when all students could secure free meals, 40% of Colorado K-12 students would have qualified for free school meals based on their family’s income — about 355,000 students.

The arguments for

Advocates of Proposition FF say that meeting kids’ basic needs, including making sure they are fed, is critical for their success in school and will help more families at a time many are struggling with the state’s rising cost of living. With food insecurity on the rise during the pandemic and inflation now affecting the cost of food, Proposition FF is designed to make sure all public school students across the state — including kids in early childhood education — can access food just like they had been able to for the first few years of the pandemic.

A Centennial Elementary School staff member wheels lunches through the cafeteria Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Harrison School District 2 school in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The current school meal program that subsidizes breakfasts and lunches for students doesn’t reach all the kids who qualify, said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat and prime sponsor of House Bill 1414. That’s because some families may be too embarrassed to fill out the necessary paperwork while immigrant families may hesitate to provide identification information on school forms for fear of deportation. And while some families may not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals because their income level exceeds program thresholds, they may still struggle to feed their kids without help.

Gonzales-Gutierrez wants to remove the stigma kids often face when they can’t pay for meals at school by opening up free meals to everyone.

“If that means we’re going to feed a kid who comes from a family that can afford food for them, I don’t see any issue with that,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. “They’re all kids, and at any moment at this time in this world we live in, most people are one paycheck away from not having those means to meet those basic needs.”

She doesn’t view the restrictions placed on state income tax deductions as a tax increase and said the measure still allows taxpayers the ability to claim deductions.

“We’re not completely taking that away, and we’re investing in our kids,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. 

She prioritizes kids’ well-being above all else.

“It’s going to benefit our schools,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. “It’s going to benefit our students and their education, and so I think it is a great investment no matter how you look at it.”

The arguments against

Opponents of Proposition FF argue that revenue from a tax increase shouldn’t be spent on students whose families don’t need financial assistance and that the dollars would have more of an impact if districts could decide how to spend the extra money based on their specific students’ needs.

Conservative fiscal activist Michael Fields would rather spend a tax increase on other pressing education issues, such as teacher pay.

“I’m not going to say that it’s a waste to provide lunches for students,” Fields said. “I just think the money might be able to be better spent somewhere else.”

Those against the measure are also quick to point out that a jump in taxes will make it harder for families to save or invest, particularly at a time inflation and a high cost of living is already straining households. Fields also has concerns that the funding projections related to the ballot measure could be off, particularly with food being a significant driver of inflation right now, and the potential for restrictions on state income tax deductions to discourage people from donating to charities. Fields wants to see a study conducted looking at the potential impact of the ballot measure on charitable giving.

It’s a “trade-off” Fields worries could hurt philanthropic organizations throughout the state.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis also isn’t a big fan of the measure. He told Colorado Public Radio that he’s not sure he will vote for it. “I don’t have an objection to the funding mechanism but at the same time I sort of ask myself, if we had this would it be better just to be able to pay teachers better, reduce class size? Or is the best use of it lunches for upper- middle-income families?” he said to CPR.

One big thing you should know

Proposition FF would increase income tax revenue to Colorado by an estimated $100.7 million during the first full year of the tax change, fiscal year 2023-24, which begins on July 1, 2023. The funds wouldn’t be subject to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights camp on government growth and spending.

The new program that would be created by the measure would also be supported by federal dollars. The proposition would require Colorado to take part in a federal initiative that ensures students enrolled in Medicaid automatically qualify for free school meals subsidized by the federal government.

Additionally, school meal providers would be obligated to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, if they qualified. That program provides extra federal reimbursements to schools with a high population of students whose household income makes them eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Schools with a high concentration of kids living in poverty are able to offer free meals to all students.

The players and the money

Healthy School Meals for All Colorado Students is the issue committee pushing for passage of Proposition FF.

Nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado is the top donor to the committee, giving half of the $1 million the group has raised. The Community First Foundation donated $250,000, while Gary Advocacy gave $100,000. 

Much of Healthy School Meals for All Colorado Students’ spending thus far has gone to consultants, but the group was slated to start airing TV ads Oct. 11.

There isn’t organized, well-funded opposition to the measure.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...