Colorado free lunch program ballot measure to come this November

Colorado voters will decide this November if they want to step in where the federal government is poised to step away and fund free school meals for all students starting the 2023-24 school year.

HB22-1414, which passed both chambers with bipartisan votes, will ask voters if they will limit tax deductions for higher-earning Coloradans to pay for the $100 million program. In turn, it will extend a pandemic-era program that ensured free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of ability to pay or if they’re registered for it.

Sponsor Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, called it a “special bill.”

“It’s all about feeding our kids, and I can’t think of a more noble thing we can do as a state than make sure we are feeding our kids a healthy meal for breakfast, for lunch,” Fields said before the 25-10 vote in the Senate.

Advocates said they saw as much as a 40% increase in participation in the school lunch program after the federal government made it free and universal at the start of the pandemic. Red tape for qualifications, the stigma of students being treated differently because they qualified for free lunch and students whose families were on the cusp, but nonetheless didn’t qualify, were all cited as reasons for increased participation.

Students may face a year without the full benefit before it begins, though — barring federal action, the current program is set to expire in June.

An early poll commissioned by Hunger Free Colorado, conducted by Keating Research, Inc., shows a promising start to the campaign. It found 60% of likely Colorado voters say they’d either definitely or probably vote yes on the measure. Comparatively, 22% say they’d definitely vote no and 8% say they’d probably vote no. The remainder is undecided.

“Voters understand the importance of making sure Colorado kids can continue to get the meals they need for improved health, better grades, higher attendance, and increased graduation rates,” Hunger Free Colorado CEO Marc Jacobson said in a statement.

The poll included 800 likely Colorado voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, according to Keating. Pollsters mimed constitutionally required language that led with noting it would be a $101 million tax increase, paid for by capping state income deductions for higher-earning residents.

The ballot measure would limit deductions for a household bringing in $300,000 or more to $16,000 for joint filers and $12,000 for individuals.

The bill does not need Gov. Jared Polis’ signature. He had not made up his mind on the measure just yet, according to his spokesperson.

“As a voter, the Governor will look at all items on the ballot this November, read the blue book, and cast his ballot,” spokesperson Conor Cahill said in a statement.

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