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JBC gets down to toughest decisions

The Joint Budget Committee may decide Tuesday how much it thinks K-12 and higher education need to be cut to balance the 2011-12 state budget.

The panel Monday afternoon picked the more pessimistic of the two state revenue forecasts that was issued last week and now must do the final balancing on next year’s budget bill, which legislative leaders plan to introduce next Monday. (JBC staff hope the committee makes up its mind Tuesday or Wednesday so that there’s enough time to get the bill written and to the printer.)

The budget committee’s main task Monday was to sort through the revenue forecasts issued last Friday by the staff of the Legislature Council and by the Office of State Planning and Budgeting. Those documents invariably differ, and after each set of forecasts the JBC parses the differences for the committee.

JBC staff director John Ziegler presented his analysis to members Monday afternoon. The differences and the calculations involved are complicated, but they boil down to this: Legislative Council staff stay the 2011-12 budget would be $177.4 million short of balancing; the OSPB forecast puts that number at $453.2 million. Both assume a 4 percent general fund reserve.

As is traditional, the committee Monday chose the more conservative (or more pessimistic) estimate to use for balancing. That vote was unanimous, although a couple of members said they wanted to check back with Legislative Council and OSPB to talk more about the differences.

Now, the committee has to figure out how to cover the $453.2 million gap. Adopting a lower reserve, as has been done in previous tight budget years, is one option.

Other options are contained in what’s sometimes called the “ugly list,” a set of possibilities (but not recommendations) prepared by JBC staff. (See pages 3 through 6 for possible Department of Education cuts.)

Options listed for K-12 includes cutting total program funding (Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed doing that by $332 million); cutting or reducing minimum per-pupil funding; reducing online student funding; eliminating or reducing preschool, full-day kindergarten or 5th year funding; taking additional money from state school trust lands, and even taking money from the Colorado Counselor Corps and BEST programs.

Options for higher education include further across-the-board cuts in general state support and cutbacks in scholarship programs.

The committee’s decision won’t be the last word on education funding. The budget measure, known as the “long bill,” must be approved by both houses. Legislative Democrats also are searching for other sources of school revenue, including taking money from other agencies and using revenue that might be generated by a tax amnesty for delinquent taxpayers.

Sen. President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, told reporters Monday that such ideas are expected to be proposed when Senate Democrats caucus on the long bill next week.

Committee passes safe schools bill

The Senate State Affairs Committee is sometimes known as a “kill committee,” but it went against type Monday and passed House Bill 11-1121 on a 4-1 vote, with only Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, voting no.

The key elements of the bill are creation of a specific set of offenses for which non-licensed staff can be denied district employment and addition of felony drug and domestic violence crimes to the list of disqualifying offenses for both classified and licensed personnel.

However, a key amendment added in the House Education Committee created a five-year “statute of limitations” for those two kinds of crimes. The House also changed the name of the bill to the “Safer Schools Act of 2011” instead of the original “Felon-free Schools Act of 2011.” Democrats objected that the original name implied that school staffs currently are riddled with felons.

The Colorado Association of School Boards supports the bill, and several other education interest groups are neutral. Opposition has come from criminal defense and civil liberties groups such as the ACLU, which argue that barring felons from such jobs further exacerbates the problem of ex-convicts finding work.

The bill is seen as somewhat limiting the discretion of school boards in the hiring of non-licensed personnel but generally being in line with current practice by school districts. State law currently requires both licenses and non-licensed workers to undergo fingerprint and background checks.

People could be barred or removed from school employment for convictions on:

  • Felony child abuse
  • Crimes of violence
  • Felonies involving unlawful sexual conduct
  • Felonies related to domestic violence
  • Felony drug offenses
  • Felony indecent exposure

The five-year statute of limitations would apply to domestic violence and to drug offenses only.

A similar proposal by Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch and now House speaker, was killed in 2010. This year’s prime sponsor is freshman Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster.

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