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Session opens with K-12 funding bill

The first education bill of the 2011 legislative session was introduced Wednesday, a measure that proposes corralling “excess” state revenues and using them to offset cuts in state K-12 support.

Senate Bill 11-001 was just one of more than a dozen education-related and budget bills read across the House and Senate front desks on the opening day of the session.

Among them were some unsuccessful favorites from past sessions – tax credits for private school tuition, student voting representation on the CSU board and changing the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association Board.

Other bills propose giving charter schools easier access to unused school district buildings, letting Mesa State College non-academic employees opt out of the state personnel system, giving at-will college teachers some new rights when terminated, changing the rules on whether students can administer prescriptions to themselves at school and requiring greater transparency of the State Land Board.

The finance bill was touted by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, in his opening remarks after the session convened and formally introduced later in the day by Senate Education Committee Chair Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. Shaffer is a cosponsor. The House prime sponsor is Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

“As we head into a session where we are staring down the barrel of millions of dollars of cuts to our K-12 and higher education systems, we must consciously prioritize education first as we consider every bill that comes before the legislature,” Shaffer said.

“Today I designate the Knowledge-Based Economy Fund as Senate Bill 1. … It will create an account to set funds aside throughout this session and dedicate them specifically to education funding.”

“If your goal is to shrink the size of government – to eliminate programs and root out wasteful government spending – let me help you. Let me help you identify those programs that don’t make sense, those functions of government that can be done more efficiently and less expensively, and let me help you redirect the funds currently being wasted to a higher cause: our Knowledge-Based Economy.”

The measure would create a temporary and somewhat convoluted system to funnel an undetermined amount of money to K-12 schools. It apparently would work like this: If the balance in the state general fund next December is larger than the March 2011 estimate of general fund revenue, the difference would go into a Knowledge-Based Economy Fund and then given to the Department of Education in January 2012. The money then would be distributed to school districts to partially offset expected cuts in state support for the 2011-12 school year.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins

The bill also proposes that money recovered through various state audits go into the fund, along with whatever other money the legislature decides to transfer.

The intent of the bill is to help schools “if there is any loose money,” Bacon told Education News Colorado.

After a lengthy listing of the economic benefits of the state’s colleges and universities, Shaffer said, “There is no question, there is no argument and there is no doubt: education equals jobs. An educated workforce attracts business and a healthy business climate is the foundation for a high quality-of-life for every Coloradan.” (You can view Shaffer’s speech here.)

Education had a lower profile during opening-day ceremonies in the House.

New Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, sounded a cautionary financial note, saying, “The bill for kicking the can down the road has come due. We will not spend what we don’t have, and yes, I recognize that this will require the state of Colorado to further tighten its belt.”

McNulty did say, “We are committed to a strong and well-funded K-12 education system. We are committed to our colleges and universities that will prepare graduates to compete in a 21st century economy.” The state’s higher education system also is expected to face budget cuts in 2011-12 – and the state’s resident undergraduate students to face tuition increases of at least 9 percent.

Given Republican control of the House, SB 11-001 would seem to have uncertain prospects in that chamber.

Other education bills of interests that surfaced Wednesday include (with prime sponsors in parenthesis):

House Bill 11-1007 – Would let Mesa State employees opt out of the state personnel system. (Rep. Laura Bradford and Sen. Steve King, both Grand Junction Republicans)

House Bill 11-1008 – Would change the membership of the PERA board to reduce member representation. This has been a continuing crusade for some Republicans. (Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango)

House Bill 11-1048 – Another hardy conservative Republican perennial, this would allow parents – and scholarship donors – to take tax credits for private school costs. (Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud)

House Bill 11-1055 – A priority of the Colorado League of Charter schools, the measure would give charter schools greater leverage in getting use of district buildings and land. Expect a fight over this one. (Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield; no Senate sponsor yet)

Senate Bill 11-011 – Another repeat, this year’s version would add both voting students and voting faculty members to the CSU board. CSU rolled out some big lobbying guns to kill the 2010 version. (Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins)

Senate Bill 11-029 – A pet project of Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, this measure would require greater financial transparency of the State Land Board, which manages school trust and other state lands. Hudak and others long have felt the lands provide too little supplemental revenue for education. (Hudak and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood)

Remember, the conventional wisdom this year is that a bill has a better chance if it has a Democratic prime sponsor in the Senate and a Republican one in the House.

Check the all-new-for-2011 Education Bill Tracker for links to texts of these bills and others introduced on opening day.