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Glimmer of hope in revenue forecasts

A slowly improving economy has sparked growth in state revenues since the last official forecasts three months ago, according to new projections issued Monday.

Depending on how the legislature decides to use the funds, K-12 cuts could drop to as little as $10 million in 2012-13 and higher education cuts could shrink to $6 million.

Also Monday, the legislative Joint Budget Committee finally made a recommendation on how much money to spend for development of new state tests in social studies and science.

Revenue forecasts were nervously awaited

Legislative and executive branch economists make official state revenue forecasts four times a year, but the March forecast is the only one that comes when the legislature is in session.

So the March forecasts have a major impact on legislative budgeting decisions every year, and the projections released Monday to the Joint Budget Committee, other lawmakers and a roomful of lobbyists, reporters and bureaucrats provide a little wiggle room for the 2012-13 budget.

The Office of State Planning and Budgeting calculated revenues for 2012-13 would be up to $164.5 million higher that previously projected. Legislative economists calculated $132 million in growth.

In a statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “We look forward to working with the Joint Budget Committee to proportionally restore some of the difficult cuts we already proposed in the budget. That means taking care of our state’s neediest seniors, supporting local governments and doing all we can to fund K-12 and higher education to their fullest potential.”

Henry Sobanet, Hickenlooper’s budget director, told reporters after the legislative briefing that there’s really a net amount of about $149 million that could be used to reduce about $188 million in total proposed cuts to K-12, higher education, grants to local government and senior assistance.

So, Sobanet said, about 80 percent of the proposed cuts could be rolled back, depending on what the legislature decides.

The administration’s existing budget plan calls for about $48 million in K-12 cuts and $30 million in higher education reductions. If the 80 percent is applied to those numbers, the K-12 cut could be as low as $10 million, and the higher ed could be reduced to $6 million.

The governor is sticking with his proposal not to restore a $100 million senior citizen property tax break. Instead he wants to target relief to low-income seniors.

House Republicans have been pressing to restore the so-called homestead exemption, so the administration and lawmakers will have to reach compromise on that issue before the 2012-13 budget is passed.

“We understand that we have a lot of moving parts and a lot of negotiation” ahead before the 2012-13 budget shakes out, Sobanet said.

The overall economic picture is getting brighter, according to the economists who compiled Monday’s forecasts.

“There are signs of healing in our economy,” said Natalie Mullis, chief legislative economist. But she warned, “there’s more healing required” and she cautioned that the additional revenue is “not a whole lot of additional money in the context of the whole budget.”

Sobanet said, “The economy is in recovery, and Colorado is well positioned to have a sustained recovery.” But he acknowledged uncertainties in the economy, and he agreed with a comment made by Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the JBC: “Not going on a shopping spree [to spend on state programs] is good advice.”

Read the forecasts

JBC finally makes up its mind

Budget committee members Monday afternoon voted 4-2 to recommend spending $6.4 million in 2012-13 for development of new state tests in social studies and science and for upgrades in tests given to English language learners and special education students.

The committee has had a hard time with that decision, partly because the Department of Education and the Hickenlooper administration had different ideas about testing costs. CDE wants $25.9 million to develop a full battery of Colorado-only tests; the administration asked for zero.

JBC members say it’s been difficult to discern what lesser amount CDE would settle for; on Monday, a majority of the panel finally accepted the amount suggested by committee analyst Craig Harper. The implication of the recommendation is that Colorado would extend transitional tests in language arts and math to a third year in 2014 and decide later whether to use multi-state tests expected to be available in 2015.

The JBC still has to decide on recommended funding for CDE’s educator effectiveness unit, on funding for the Building Excellent Schools Today program and on baseline funding for K-12 schools next year.

Read Harper’s revised recommendations here.

Collective bargaining sunshine bill moves in House

The House Monday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 12-1118, which would require that school district collective bargaining sessions be open to the public.

Prime sponsor Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, pitched the bill as a transparency proposal, saying passage of the measure would “inspire greater confidence” in school district operations and that “open negotiations should inspire more civility in our negotiations processes.”

Democratic critics of the bill repeated arguments made during a committee hearing on the bill, arguing that it infringes on the local control powers of school boards and would upset the “delicacy” of negotiations, as one member put it.

When parents have an argument, “It isn’t necessary for the whole family to sit and listen to it,” said Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, saying the same discretion should apply to bargaining.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, said, “This bill would completely undermine collective bargaining for our school districts.” Rather than try to establish the relationships necessary for reaching agreement, negotiators “are going to be more concerned with how they’re perceived.” Hamner is both a former superintendent and a former teachers union official.

The bill is formally opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association. The Colorado Association of Schools Boards lists itself as “monitoring” the bill. Several individual districts and superintendents oppose the bill. Union and district opposition could be persuasive in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Two Colorado school districts, Poudre and Mesa, currently have public bargaining, according to the Colorado Education Association. Colorado Springs District 11 bargaining is partly open.

For the record

The House Education Committee voted 12-0 to pass Senate Bill 12-045, which would create a method by which a student who has earned sufficient credits from a community college and a four-year school to combine those credits for an associate’s degree. The bill is intended to improve college completion rates by providing degrees to students who didn’t receive associate degrees before transferring and then didn’t earn enough additional credits for four-year degrees.

Still on ice

The Senate Monday again delayed action on Senate Bill 12-015, the undocumented students tuition bill, this time until Friday. And the House laid over House Bill 12-1238, the early literacy proposal whose progress has been slowed by negotiations over its student retention section, financing and other issues.
Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.