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A flurry of legislative budget discussions Monday raised the strong possibility of keeping K-12 and higher education spending flat in 2012-13, sparing them the cuts that had been proposed.

The immediate spark for the discussions was an analysis of last week’s quarterly revenue forecasts done by John Ziegler, staff director for the Joint Budget Committee.

The analysis indicated that the legislature could have as much as $199.8 million available to restore cuts that had been planned in the 2012-13 budget.

A key piece of the analysis is the fact that Ziegler estimates the $199.8 million will be available even after the scheduled restoration of $98.5 million annual property tax credit for senior citizens. Up to now it’s been assumed that restoring the credit would require cuts elsewhere in the budget, most likely to education. Because of that, the Hickenlooper administration proposed a continued suspension of the program, a move opposed by majority Republicans in the House. Most statehouse observers had expected a major fight over that issue.

During committee discussions that followed Ziegler’s presentation, JBC members indicated interest in using some of the “new” money to eliminate a planned higher education cut of nearly $30 million. The committee was firmer on wanting to use some the funds to avoid a planned $57.2 million cut for K-12.

But other state programs also could use the money, and the JBC hasn’t yet sorted out the all the competing priorities and decided on a final budget proposal. Members are scheduled to continue their talks Tuesday.

The administration has a somewhat lower estimate – $149 million – of how much money might be available for restoring planned cuts. But Henry Sobanet, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, said that figure isn’t comparable to Ziegler’s $199 million, partly because the administration wants to first divert money into the pinched State Education Fund, which is used to supplement school district support and for special purposes, such as paying for state tests.

Total program funding, the total that districts receive for basic operating expenses from both state and local revenues, is about $5.23 billion this year. State colleges received $519 million in direct state aid this year while receiving about three times that much from tuition.

Busy day for higher ed bills

Bills affecting the state’s colleges and universities moved ahead on both the floors and in committee Monday. Here’s the rundown:

  • Two college name-change bills got preliminary House floor approval. Senate Bill 12-148 would convert Metro State into a university, and House Bill 12-1080 would do the same for Adams State College in Alamosa. There was some scattered opposition from Republican members complaining about “mission creep,” but the bills got easy voice-vote approval.
  • Speaking of changing an institution’s status, the House Education Committee gave 12-0 approval to House Bill 12-1324, which would change the admissions standards for Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction from “moderately selective” to “selective.” Mesa was upgraded to university status by the 2011 legislature.
  • The Senate voted preliminary approval to House Bill 12-1144, which would allow colleges and universities to offer multi-year contracts, up to three years, to faculty members who are not on the track for tenure. The bill is considered a tool that institutions, particularly community colleges, can use to create some stability in their adjunct faculty ranks at a time when rising enrollments have forced hiring greater numbers of such teachers.

Two charter reform bills advance

The House voted preliminary approval to Senate Bill 12-061, which would create uniform minimum standards for charter school applications and also set some new standards for authorizing districts. A key feature of the bill clarifies when a charter application is “complete.” Lack of clarity about that in current law has created issues in some charter appeals to the state.

House Education voted 11-0 to pass Senate Bill 12-067, which clarifies state law and requires that charter schools be non-profit organizations, although charters would be free to hire for-profit organizations to manage and run schools. The bill is intended to help ensure that charters are operated by stand-alone organizations with local board members and not puppets of for-profit operators. The bill wouldn’t affect the status of any current Colorado charters.

Both the bills are based on the recommendations of the so-called 1412 Committee, a panel of district and charter representatives created by the 2010 legislature and assigned to suggest new standards for both charter schools and the districts that authorize them.

For the record

The Senate voted 23-12 for final passage of Senate Bill 12-130, which would consolidate several early childhood agencies now scattered throughout state government in the Department of Human Services. The bill doesn’t particularly affect educational programs like the Colorado Preschool Program, which would remain in the Department of Education. But the Hickenlooper administration considers the bill part of its policy priority to improve early childhood services and education.

The bill was criticized in floor debate by conservative Republicans who tried to paint it as big-government overreach into family life. Interestingly, all the Senate’s Republican men voted against the bill, while all three GOP women, Ellen Roberts of Durango, Nancy Spence of Centennial and Jean White of Hayden voted yes.

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

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