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Tight budget bill now law

Gov. John Hickenlooper Friday signed Senate Bill 11-209, the $7 billion 2011-12 state budget bill that got started with Gov. Bill Ritter submitting a plan to the Joint Budget Committee last November.

Hickenlooper issued a modified proposal in February, followed by weeks of wrangling as legislative leaders tried to figure out how to handle the budget in a General Assembly with split partisan control.

For education, the net result of the eventual budget compromise is a $227.5 million cut in K-12 total program funding for next year, down from the $332 million originally proposed by Hickenlooper. Some school districts may share an additional $67.5 million next January, but only if the 2010-11 budget year ends with a larger surplus than previously forecast. (Get more details in this story.)

The state’s higher education system is taking a cut of about $125 million in state funding, which now is only about a quarter of college and university revenue. Higher ed now relies primarily on student tuition and fees. The University of Colorado recently set its rates for next year (see story), and other boards of trustees will follow suit his month and next.

Hickenlooper Friday signed several other budget-package bills, including Senate Bill 11-218, which sweeps money from several small and inactive special funds in the Department of Education into the State Education Fund.

And, the House gave preliminary approval Friday to Senate Bill 11-076, yet another budget-related measure. That bill will produce savings by continuing a plan under which the state and universities reduce their contributions to employee pensions, with that loss offset by higher deductions from workers’ paychecks.

That bill, and a resolution allowing the transfer of some tobacco lawsuit settlement money, has to pass in order for the overall 2011-12 budget to be balanced, as required by the state constitution. If that pair isn’t approved (it’s expected the two bills will be), Hickenlooper said he’ll have to restrict spending elsewhere in the budget, including $20 million in school funding for next year.

The governor also vetoed eight footnotes in the budget bill, including three that put specific requirements on three areas of Department of Education spending. Hickenlooper said he was instructing the department to follow the intent of the three footnotes but that the legislature violated the constitutional separation of powers by being too specific in how money could be spent. (Read the governor’s letter for details on the footnote vetoes.)

Elsewhere at the statehouse

Colorado lawmakers did manage to evacuate the Capitol by late afternoon Friday, leaving a pile of work for the last three days of the 2011 session next week.

Although other issues are sparking the high-profile debates as the sessions nears its end, several bills relating to education moved on the floor and in committee on Friday.

On the floor

The House gave final approval to these education bills:

  • Senate Bill 11-111 – Authorizing study of student transitions and remediation, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-133 – Approving a study of school discipline measures, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-204 – Updating the role and mission of Colorado State University-Pueblo and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 63-0
  • Senate Bill 11-265 – Mesa State name change to Colorado Mesa University, 60-3

All but SB 11-111, which was amended in the House, go to Hickenlooper for signature.

The House also rejected Senate amendments to House Bill 11-1254, the bullying bill, sending it to conference committee and adding a small note of suspense to the session’s final days.

The Senate voted 34-0 to pass Senate Bill 11-266, which requires background checks for employees of contractors who work for schools. Criminal background checks, of course, already are required for teachers, other licensed professionals and other employees of schools.

In committee

The clock may be ticking on the 2011 legislation session, but that didn’t stop panel members from giving the full Senate Education Committee treatment – multiple amendments, lengthy questioning and nitpicking of details – to House Bill 11-1301 Friday afternoon.

Sponsor Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, looked increasingly exasperated as the hearing dragged on.

The measure, pushed primarily by CU, would give colleges and universities increased flexibility on a variety of financial and administrative matters, including student fees, employee benefits, hiring, construction and others.

A sensitive part of the bill is the proposal to free colleges from the requirement to buy office furniture from the state’s prison industries. Some lawmakers fear that would cripple the industries program. The House added some protections, and Senate Ed approved an amendment that would delay for a year lifting of that requirement.

The committee also passed an amendment requiring a college to give 12 months’ notice to the Department of Personnel and Administration if it wants to opt out of state health insurance for classified employees and offer its own plan. That’s intended to give the state time to figure out if withdrawal of college employees would hurt the state plan financially. The governor would be the ultimate arbiter of disputes.

The House Education Committee voted 12-0 to pass Senate Bill 11-245, which updates state law on Department of Higher Education oversight of some teacher preparation programs, and 11-1 to pass Senate Bill 11-240, which would put the private occupational schools board under the state’s sunset law.

At the request of sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, the House State Affairs Committee killed House Bill 11-1248, which would have reduced worker and retiree membership on the Public Employee’s Retirement Association Board and added gubernatorial appointees.

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