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Dems hunt for K-12 answers

Legislative Democrats know they don’t like Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2011-12 budget, but they don’t yet know quite how to soften the blow to K-12 education.

“The budget we pass won’t be the same as the governor’s proposal,” Senate President Brandon Shaffer told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t know how it will be different.”

Hickenlooper’s budget plan, unveiled Tuesday, proposes cutting K-12 spending for next year by $332 million from current levels. That cut would reduce average per-pupil funding from $6,823 to $6,326 and make total program spending about $5.1 billion.

The governor’s K-12 spending plan would be $836 million below what full 2011-12 funding would be under the terms of Amendment 23. Details in this story.

Legislators, lobbyists and others at the Statehouse weren’t blindsided by the Hickenlooper plan; a cut of $300 million to $400 million had been widely expected.

Still the actual announcement had a shock effect, which was still rolling through the Capitol Wednesday.

The subject came up as the House debated 2010-11 budget balancing bills, as the Senate Education Committee discussed non-budget bills and during a Senate Democratic caucus after the morning floor session ended.

“In my mind the legislative session just started” with Hickenlooper’s announcement, Shaffer said.

The Senate president and education committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, met with reporters Wednesday afternoon to talk about their commitment to education funding and about – without many specifics – what they hope to do about it. Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was supposed to participate but was held up on the House floor, trying to scrape a little extra education money out of 2010-11 budget balancing bills.

Shaffer and Bacon evaded saying what level of K-12 would be acceptable to them.

One reporter asked if Hickenlooper’s budget was “dead on arrival” in the legislature. Bacon replied, “I certainly hope in part it is DOA.”

But the two talked only in general terms about what can be done to reduce the K-12 bite.

Hickenlooper has proposed setting a 4 percent general fund reserve for next year instead of the 2 percent sometimes used in tight budget years.

“That may be a point of discussion,” Bacon said.

Hickenlooper pointed out to reporters Tuesday that cutting back to a 2 percent reserve would only free up about $100 million and suggested that wouldn’t make much of a difference. Shaffer said Wednesday, “In my world $100 million is a lot of money.”

“I can’t tell you where the money is” to help education, Shaffer said. “This is a negotiation.”

The two also mentioned Senate Bill 11-001, a measure they are cosponsoring.

The bill would create a temporary and somewhat convoluted system to funnel an undetermined amount of money to K-12 schools. It 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 cuts. Monday from audit recoveries also would be swept into the fund.

No fiscal analysis has yet been done on the bill, and Shaffer couldn’t estimate how much money it might raise.

Both agreed the revenue probably would be modest.

Shaffer also said money for education is “not going to come from one place,” adding, “There will be other initiatives that will come forward,” without being specific.

The president also has introduced Senate Bill 11-109, which would allow citizens to contribute to education through income-tax check-offs. He acknowledged that wouldn’t raise much money.

In response to a question, Shaffer said he wasn’t going to try to raise education funds by selling off the Pinnacol workers’ comp insurance company. That’s been a radioactive issue in recent sessions. “That’s not where I’m going.”

Raiding state cash funds, a popular tactic in past downturns, probably isn’t much of an option, Shaffer said. “I unfortunately think most of the cash funds are tapped out.”

Both men vowed to at least make education funding an issue of intense debate this session.

Shaffer noted that last year it took the Senate only six minutes of floor discussion to approve cutting some $265 million from K-12 support.

“We’re not going to let that happen” this year, he said.

And Bacon has talked about structuring the annual school finance bill in such a way as to draw attention to the magnitude of education cuts.

In other action

• It was the House’s turn Wednesday to work through the long list of Joint Budget Committee bills designed to balance the current 2010-11 budget. Consideration of the bills was moved up on the schedule.

Debate on the bills largely mirrored that in the Senate. The House did pass a Democratic amendment to give schools any excess funds over a proposed 2.3 percent reserve.

• The Senate Education Committee approved two measures, Senate Bill 11-111 and House Bill 11-1077.

The first is the bill by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, to create a study panel that would examine ways to attack the state’s college remediation problem. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, wondered if such a panel is necessary, given the new executive branch education commission being organized under Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.

The committee did pass the bill, which now will require approval from Legislative Council, the leadership committee that has to OK all legislative studies.

Senate Ed also passed House Bill 11-1077, which would clean up state laws on special education and gifted and talented students.

• The Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee killed Senate Bill 11-075, which would have required state regulation of inflatable amusement devices such as “bouncy castles.”