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PERA advances; 3 charter bills introduced

The solvency plan for the Public Employees’ Retirement Association took a big step toward final approval Friday, the same day that House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, introduced three bills that would set more uniform quality standards for charter schools.

The charter legislation has been expected, but it had been unclear what Carroll was going to propose. The bills appear to be a reaction to the financial and operations questions that have swirled around the Cesar Chavez Network. (Go here for EdNews background on the network’s troubles.)

For now Carroll is the sole sponsor on the bills, so he’ll need to sign up a Senate sponsor if the bills pass the House. Carroll, serving his last session in the legislature, has long been a charter supporter, and his northeast Denver district contains several charter schools.

Here are the bills:

House Bill 10-1343 – The measure directs the State Board of Education to “adopt quality standards for charter school operations, finance, and governance by January 1, 2011.” Standards would include financial matters such as “excess benefits, executive compensation, nepotism, and conflicts of interest in charter school governance,” some of which were issues with Chavez.

House Bill 10-1344 – The proposal sets out 10 criteria charter school authorizers should meet in their work and also directs the state board to set rules for authorizers.

House Bill 10-1345 – The final bill in the set would grant a school board or the Charter School Institute “the ability to request from the commissioner of education the power for an external entity to have control over a charter school that is considered to be in an emergency situation.”

The big act of the day for the House was preliminary approval of Senate Bill 10-001, the complex PERA rescue plan that would cut retiree benefits, raise employer and employee contributions and make a variety of changes in eligibility rules.

The bill is backed by Democrats, key Senate Republicans and PERA officials, who has been able to keep the bill intact despite attacks by some Republicans and widespread criticism among retirees.

A key feature of the bill would give retirees no benefit increase next year and reduce the current 3.5 percent annual increase to 2 percent in future years. Legislative leaders want the bill signed into law by March 1 to prevent the next scheduled 3.5 percent hike from kicking in. Final House approval, presumably next week, would send the measure to Gov. Bill Ritter.

Conservative House Republicans and PERA critics prolonged debate for more than hour Friday afternoon, but all their proposed amendments were defeated.

The PERA debate, plus a lengthy wrangle over a river rafting bill, apparently prevented the House from considering Senate amendments to the package of bills that would repeal several tax exemptions, raising about $148 million in new revenue. Legislative leaders also want those passed by March 1 so some revenue will starting flowing in the current budget year.

Elsewhere around the Statehouse

• The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 6-4 to pass Senate Bill 10-150, which would divert about $46 million in state lands revenues to current K-12 support rather than letting it flow into the permanent lands trust fund. Colorado Education Association lobbyist Karen Wick vainly urged members not to pass the bill, which mirrors legislation passed in each of the last two years to shore up school spending. Diverting revenue from the permanent fund has the effect of reducing interest revenue that’s also used for schools. The policy argument is short-term needs versus long-term benefits.

• The House Appropriations Committee killed House Bill 10-1040, a feel-good measure that would have allowed creation of employer-matched accounts in CollegeInvest that adults could use for training or going back to college. Since employers could deduct their matches, that would have led to an estimated $56,000 loss in tax revenue over two years – hence the bill’s defeat.

The panel did pass House Bill 10-1030, which would create a scholarship program for early childhood educators – to be funded with future federal dollars.

• And, the full Senate gave preliminary approval to:

  • Senate Bill 10-056, which requires school districts to distribute standard immunization information to parents.
  • Senate Bill 10-008, which authorizes a study of the average daily membership method of counting school enrollment.
  • Senate Bill 10-058, which clarifies eligibility for the nursing teacher loan forgiveness program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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