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A Lobato debate in the House?

It looks like the full House may get to debate an issue lawmakers have been avoiding all session – the potential costs and tradeoffs posed by the Lobato v. State school funding case.

The potential vehicle for that discussion is House Bill 12-1109, an unlikely bill from an unlikely source, and a bill with virtually no chance of passage.

After hanging around on the calendar since Jan. 20, HB 12-1109 had its first hearing Tuesday morning in the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill proposes a draconian short-term solution to school funding problems – cutting the budgets of most state agencies by $198 million next year and putting the money in the State Education Fund, which is used to supplement state support of K-12 schools.

Its sole sponsor is Democratic Rep. Wes McKinley, a colorful southeastern Colorado rancher better known this session for bills on non-profit cemeteries and growing industrial hemp. McKinley’s original education bill proposes the across-the-board cut. He said Tuesday he’d be willing to amend the measure into a 7.9 percent cut in state employee salaries so state services wouldn’t be affected.

In something of a surprise, appropriations members spent nearly an hour debating the bill and then voted 8-5 to send it to the floor for consideration. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, joined seven Republicans in supporting the bill.

“One reason I want this to go to the floor is that this is the Lobato discussion,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “What your bill will do, Representative McKinley, is to force a ‘if it were to be successful’ discussion. … I’d like to have 65 people have that discussion.” (The House has 65 members.)Many critics of the Lobato ruling fear it would do the same thing on a larger scale that McKinley’s bill would do in a small way – force lawmakers to slash other government programs in order to increase school funding.

Two other Republicans, committee chair Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Rep. Glenn Vaad of Mead, agreed that the full House should have the debate. But Vaad stressed he was voting for the bill in committee only for that reason, not because he’d support it on the floor.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, also voted to send the bill to the floor but clearly isn’t a fan.

“You have the prize for the most fiscally inappropriate legislation,” she told McKinley. “You are basically cutting the core functions of government. … I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I’ve been working since November to make sure we take care of what we need to take care of. … I see this bill as being reckless.”

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, spoke up for McKinley. “Those previous comments I think, quite frankly, are out of line,” he said. “Representative McKinley tried to find a way to think outside the box to fund education.”

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said McKinley’s bill “brings into perfect focus” the state’s revenue problems. But she also said, “We’re going to have a long protracted debate and we all know here we are not going to pass this bill. … We don’t have time to have debates for the sake of debates.”

On Dec. 9 Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State suit, finding the state’s spending formula for K-12 schools does not meet constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” school system.

Estimates of what it might cost to meet Rappaport’s ruling run between $2 and $4 billion a year on top of the roughly $5.2 billion the state and districts now spend for basic school operating costs.

Attorney General John Suthers has appealed the ruling on behalf of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education, and the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall.

Although Rappaport’s decision came just weeks before the 2011 legislative session opened, there’s been no sustained discussion of the case during hearings on education bills or on the 2012-13 budget. Some lawmakers predicted in January that would be the case because legislators would want to see how the appeal turns out.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said before the session started that he planned to introduce comprehensive school funding legislation this year, “something that’s a long-term vision for school finance in Colorado. … This would include a long-term plan for both funding and reform.”About a month ago, during a talk to a school finance forum, Johnston reiterated his interest in proposing a bill (see story). He spoke shortly after the release of a paper on the issue by the Colorado School Finance Partnership, a group with which he’s been working (see story).

Asked Monday about his plans, Johnston said he’s still working on the issue. But he hinted that he might not have legislation ready for this year, given the complexity of the issue.

The legislative session has only three weeks more to run – lawmakers must adjourn no later than May 9 – leaving little time amid the crush of last-minute business for discussion of an issue as complex as school finance.

Scheduling McKinley’s bill for floor discussion will be up the the majority Republican leadership of the House. The bill is on Thursday’s calendar, but bills frequently are delayed.