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Senate passes school finance bill

Updated 5:45 p.m. April 8 – The result was never in doubt, but the 2011-12 school finance act, Senate Bill 11-230, prompted 45 minutes of philosophical debate before the Senate passed it on a preliminary voice vote early Friday evening. A final recorded vote will be taken Monday.

The measure, in combination with other bills, sets total program funding next year at a bit more than $5.1 billion in state and local funds. Current year school funding is $260 million less than school support was in 2009-10.

Sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said, “We’re making the least bad choices. … It is what it is. I wish it were different.”

Several senators followed Bacon to the microphone, some to vent and some to challenge others’ assumptions about school funding. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Sen. Bacon is right that this is probably the least bad we can get, but it’s bad, really bad.” – Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
  • “There’s no way I can vote for this bill.” – Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
  • “It is widely taken for granted that we underfund education. … There is serious reason to question that assumption.” – Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield
  • “I don’t think you can say the state is not spending a lot of money on education.” – Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, argued that something must to be done to increase local funding of schools to reduce the burden on the state. Harvey blamed part of the education funding squeeze on skyrocketing Medicaid costs.

Later in the evening, the Senate passed an amendment to the main budget measure, Senate Bill 11-209, that restores the $5 million funding of the Colorado Counselor Corps. The Joint Budget Committee had recommended cutting the program to $2.5 million. Bacon and King proposed the successful amendment to restore funding, taking the extra cash from the State Education Fund. The bill was passed as amended.

The Senate spent the afternoon working through and approving a long list of budget bills. Others with direct impact on education include:

Senate Bill 11-184, which as amended would set up a tax amnesty next fall during which delinquent taxpayers could pay up. Most of the revenue would go to education. The measure became a mini-Christmas tree bill, with several senators trying to tap into its revenues for other programs.

A couple of those “raids” succeeded, even one that taps some $450,000 to soften cuts in state employee mileage reimbursements in another bill.

Hudak managed to get $30,000 out of the bill to pay for the CDE’s family literacy program, which also was to be cut in another bill.

But a Hudak amendment to take $500,000 to pay for the network or county early childhood councils failed.

After the amendments, the bill would leave a bit more than $8 million for education from the amnesty.

The body also passed Senate Bill 11-218, which closes out several small funds in the Department of Education and sweeps them into the State Education Fund.

(Text of Thursday story follows)

Lawmakers held their noses and voted Thursday for key elements of the 2011-12 state budget package, setting up full Senate floor consideration of several bills on Friday.

The main act of the day was the Senate Appropriations Committee passage of Senate Bill 11-230, the school finance act, by a vote of 9-1. The measure will cut K-12 total program funding for 2011-12 by $250 million from this year’s levels. It also makes permanent the provision that allows lawmakers to reduce school funding when necessary.

While the cut is lower than the $332 million originally proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, nobody’s happy about it.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, is carrying the new school finance bill but isn't happy about it.
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, is carrying the new school finance bill but isn't happy about it.

Several of the witnesses who testified at the hearing urged lawmakers to find ways to reduce the cut further.

“We’ll continue to see dramatic impacts on students across our state” because of the $250 million cut, said Karen Wick, lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association.

She also said, “We have significant problems” with the provision that makes permanent the reduction factor in the school finance formula.

Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the Colorado Association of Schools Boards, said, “We see it as a sad day when the choice is between a school child and a fee benefit for Walmart.”

She was referring to another piece of the House-Senate budget compromise that reinstates a fee paid to retailers, including big ones such as Walmart, for collecting sales taxes. It was the first time in 17 years that CASB isn’t supporting a school finance bill, she said; it’s neutral this year.

Jason Callegari, representing the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said budget cuts are threatening the flexibility that charter schools prize: “As we project into the future, we don’t see an end to these cuts.”

The hearing, which had been moved to the Capitol’s largest meeting room, drew a smaller crowd that some had expected and lasted only about 90 minutes.

“The situation is as it is,” said sponsor Sen. Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat and a former teacher and school board member. “Even though none of us really want this, we find that the times are such that it’s the best we can do.”

The only no vote was Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who called the cuts “not only a travesty but a tragedy.” Heath is the promoter of a possible November ballot measure that would raise state income and sales taxes to help fund schools and colleges.

Earlier in the day, the committee approved a long list of other budget measures, including Senate Bill 11-209, the long appropriations bill. See this EdNews story for details on the education components of the budget-balancing package.

Simple task prompts long speeches

Over in the House, members of the State Affairs Committee apparently were more eager to talk Thursday than they were to eat.

After a grueling House floor session, the committee convened over the lunch hour with a very simple assignment – removing from Senate Bill 11-076 an earlier amendment that would have allowed school boards and other local governments to reduce their contributions to the state pension system while requiring employees to increase their payroll deductions.

That amendment was pushed by Republicans who argued such a swap would give school districts more flexibility in a tight budget year. The bill was strongly opposed by unions, who bombarded legislators with a massive email campaign by members.

Even though the school district swap wouldn’t have directly affected the state budget, dropping the idea was part of the House-Senate budget compromise that was reached Tuesday.

The original bill, proposed by the Joint Budget Committee to help balance the budget, continues a separate swap under which the state and higher education institutions save money by reducing their contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association by 2.5 percent. But employees have to pay an additional 2.5 percent. That part of the bill remains intact.

The only witness was Scott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS. He trooped to the witness table to put in a for-the-record plea not to cut state workers’ take-home pay.

His comments sparked a long series of speeches by Democratic and Republican members alike, covering well-worn partisan ground on civil servant pay and pensions. The discussion was polite and even genteel – a faint echo of the union fights taking place in other states – but it consumed an hour of time for an outcome that was predetermined.

The school board amendment was stripped from the bill, and the original bill passed 7-2.

Make a bet for college kids?

A new bill with a familiar subject was introduced Thursday. Senate Bill 11-233 would allow the Colorado Lottery Commission to authorize video gaming terminals at two locations in the state. Net proceeds would go to higher education scholarships.

The sponsors are Democratic Sens. Mary Hodge of Brighton and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton; there are no House sponsors signed on yet.

Video-gaming proposals are something of a late-session favorite. Last year, then-Sen. Chris Romer – now running for mayor of Denver – floated two gaming plans to fund higher education. Neither went anywhere.

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