A Campaign to Make Free School Meals the New Normal: One State's Proposal to Raise Taxes on High Earners to Fill the Gap

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With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers in Colorado announced a new proposal to permanently fund free school meals.

House Bill 22-1414 would refer a ballot measure to Colorado voters, asking them to approve a cap on itemized and standard tax deductions for individuals earning a federal adjusted gross income of $300,000 or more per year. The bill was introduced April 29 and advanced by a House committee on Tuesday.

The measure would raise about $100 million a year to reimburse districts for meals provided to students who weren’t federally eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, provide grants to help school districts buy locally produced food, increase pay for cafeteria staff, and more. If voters approved the ballot measure in November, free, universal school meals would kick in starting with the 2023-2024 school year.

Sponsors of HB-1414 include Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City, along with Sens. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Rhonda Fields of Aurora, all Democrats. Earlier in the session, the same group of lawmakers introduced a different bill to make school meals permanently available at no cost to Colorado families.

Advocates were hoping to see an amendment to that original bill, Senate Bill 22-87, to make school meals a one-year program and use federal COVID-19 relief money to fund meals for the the 2022-2023 school year only, with the expectation that the ballot measure could fund the program in future years. It would take approximately $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to reimburse school districts for free meals in 2022-2023, according to Ashley Wheeland, policy director for Hunger Free Colorado.

Now, lawmakers say that money is unlikely to be available, meaning districts won’t be able to continue providing free meals to all kids next school year.

Universal free meal waivers to soon expire

School meals have been available for free to most Colorado students since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the pandemic hit in 2020, forcing K-12 education to go remote, then-President Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture made its school meals program more flexible so that organizations could distribute grab-and-go meals to students when schools were closed. Subsequent nationwide waivers allowed schools to continue to provide meals to all kids with federal funding through June 2021. In April 2021, USDA extended the free meals through June 2022, describing them as part of the Biden administration’s commitment to safely reopening schools.

“During the COVID pandemic, we saw the federal government step in, and really … step up for our kids,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said during HB-1414’s Tuesday hearing.

But with many competing priorities at the Legislature, Wheeland acknowledged that advocates are unlikely to get the funding to pay for school meals in fall 2022 and spring 2023.

“Part of the reason to introduce the referred measure is because the ongoing cost means that we need more dollars from voters,” Wheeland said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, said legislators had looked at different ways to permanently fund school meals, including by creating a program that would only cover free breakfast. Ultimately, though, funding the first year of a universal free meals program with one-time money was something they were “reticent to do,” Moreno told reporters Tuesday.

Using federal COVID-19 relief money for school meals in 2022-2023 would create “an expectation that if the ballot measure doesn’t pass … that the Legislature would be able to continue funding,” Moreno said.

Proposed cap on income tax deductions

The ballot measure proposed in the newly introduced HB-1414 would use a similar maneuver to one that lawmakers enacted last year through House Bill 21-1311, Democrat-led legislation that sought to make Colorado’s tax code more equitable. HB-1311 capped itemized deductions for people with annual incomes of over $400,000, at $30,000 in deductions for individuals and $60,000 for couples.

The ballot measure would significantly lower the cap, applying it to both itemized and standard deductions for people earning $300,000 or more. The cap would be set at $12,000 for individuals and $16,000 for couples. Additional revenue generated through the ballot measure would be used for school meal reimbursements, local food purchasing grants and smaller programs in HB-1414.

Besides Hunger Free Colorado, organizations backing HB-1414 include the progressive advocacy groups Colorado Center on Law and Policy and Great Education Colorado, as well as Junior League of Denver, a women’s volunteer organization.

During HB-1414’s first hearing Tuesday, some members of the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee expressed doubts about the idea that all kids should get free meals regardless of income level.

“My kids are all grown, but if I had kids, how can I sit here and say my kids should have a free lunch if I’m making six figures? I don’t think that’s right,” Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, said at the hearing. “So I have a fundamental problem with the premise of the bill. People that could afford to pay need to pay to subsidize programs needed to help the people who need the subsidies.”

Advocates, however, point out that stigma and embarrassment keep some parents from signing up their kids for free- or reduced-price meals even though they’d be eligible. Families with mixed immigration status may also be wary of providing personal information to the government. Or, advocates say, low-income students might worry about getting judged by their peers, so they avoid accessing free breakfast or lunch when it’s not free for everyone.

A single parent with two kids in Colorado typically must earn less than $28,549 per year for the children to qualify for free meals, or less than $40,627 for reduced-price meals. But families who earn more than that can still face food insecurity.

Using data last updated in early March, the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that a single parent with two children living in El Paso County would need to earn about $92,800 before taxes to afford child care, housing, transportation, food and other basic living expenses. A single parent with two kids in Arapahoe County would need $103,000.

The House committee voted 8-4, along party lines, to refer HB-1414 to the House Finance Committee. One lawmaker, Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, was excused for the vote.

Wheeland said last Monday that she had not heard from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis about whether he would support the tax measure to permanently fund school meals. Polis’ office did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.

Advocates know Polis supports education, Wheeland said, adding, “We hope he’ll support making sure kids have food while they’re learning.”

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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