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Highed ed flex bill dies

Senate Bill 09-295, the higher education financial flexibility bill, died in the Colorado Senate Wednesday on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. What killed it was a House provision that would have given community and four-year colleges the ability to seek local property and sales taxes.

The proposal started out in a much more ambitious form that would have given colleges control over their tuition rates and state financial aid for their students, perhaps setting the higher education system on a path toward more expensive tuition for all students but additional financial aid for needy students.

The bill was introduced late in the session, and lawmakers weren’t ready for such a major policy change on such short notice. Gov. Bill Ritter also opposed it. Those sections were quickly dropped from the measure, leaving it only with provisions to give colleges some exemptions from state financial rules, streamline the approval process for construction projects colleges fund with their own money and greater flexibility for enrolling foreign students, who pay higher, non-resident tuition.

The bill got interesting again on Monday, when the House added to SB 09-295 the language of another higher ed financial bill that had been killed in a Senate committee last Friday.

That measure, House Bill 09-1362, was intended to allow community and four-year colleges to partner with local governments and seek voter approval for sales or property taxes that would help support the colleges. (The bill was killed in the Senate because the bill threatened to get way too complicated because other sectors of higher ed were trying to horn in on the action.)

When SB 09-295 came back up in the Senate late Wednesday afternoon, it quickly become clear that House amendment had opposition.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and a former CU regent, moved that the Senate stick with its original version.

“This will not include any of the research institutions,” complained Schwartz, a reliable defender of CU. (Colorado higher education is in such dire financial straits that colleges scrap for every dollar.)

The Senate voted 18-17 to reject House amendments, effectively killing the bill because there was no time on the session’s last day for a conference committee. Schwartz and four other Democrats joined all Republicans to successfully pass her motion.

Senate President Pro Tempore Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood and the bill’s sponsor, tried to change some minds for reconsideration but was unsuccessful.

The House had given 63-2 approval to SB 09-295 Wednesday morning.

The Senate earlier had agreed to House amendments and unanimously repassed Senate Bill 09-290, which contains the same changes in the college construction approval process as SB 09-295 did. Members of the Capital Development Committee intended SB 09-290 as a backup in case SB 09-295 failed, and it turned out they were wise to do that.

Senate Bill 09-226, the food allergy bill, also crossed the legislative finish line on Wednesday. The Senate voted 25-10 for the amended version. The House approved the bill Tuesday.

The original bill would have required the State Board of Education and local school boards to adopt policies on caring for students with food allergies, training of school staff and provision of anti-reaction devices in schools. The bill was much amended, and as it ended up primarily applies existing state law regarding asthmatic children to students with food allergies. As amended, the bill will have the SBE issue guidelines.

Some of the last day’s longest debate in both houses was focused on House Bill 09-1366, which would change state law on taxation of capital gains and raise an estimated $7.1 million this fiscal year and $15.8 million next year.

The House passed it 37-28 and the Senate 21-14.

While the bill doesn’t directly affect education now, it could be the forerunner of similar bills to come in 2010 that might provide revenue for schools and colleges.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, touts this as the first in a series of tax bills the legislature could pass without voter ratification, in keeping with a recent state supreme court decision. Romer estimates there are up to $3 billion in tax breaks that could be ended in order to raise state revenues.

Also Wednesday, a common version of Senate Bill 09-285 finally was passed. This is the measure that would include career and technical education programs in the new statewide dual enrollment bill created by House Bill 09-1319, which passed on Tuesday.

In other action

Even though everyone was anxious to go home, the Senate spent 20 minutes debating Senate Joint Resolution 09-050, which would have required every legislator to attend a certain number of Joint Budget Committee meetings.

There’s been a lot of grousing this year – at least by Republicans – about the JBC. Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, thinks the rest of the legislature just doesn’t understand what the committee does and that it would be helpful if the other 94 members had to watch the process. The debate mostly picked a lot of old scabs about the JBC.

The resolution failed on a 16-19 vote.

The Senate did approve three other resolutions: HJR 09-1025, creating an interim committee on school safety; SJR 09-044, creating an interim committee to study school safety, and SJR 09-056, the purely ceremonial resolution touting why Colorado’s education reform achievements make the state a good candidate for Race to the Top funds.

Lawmakers did not take up Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto of a footnote in Senate Bill 09-259, the 2009-10 long appropriations bill. The footnote would have allowed state colleges and universities, under a certain combination of financial circumstances, to raise 2009-10 tuition more than 9 percent. As it stands without the footnote, 9 percent is the ceiling for tuition hikes, although community colleges and four-year schools are likely to approve lower increases.

(In case you’re wondering why so much of this story is about the Senate, that’s because the House was much more efficient about it last-day work and spent much of the day in recess waiting for the Senate to catch up.)