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School finance, ASSET bills move

The 2012-13 school finance act passed the House Education Committee unanimously on Monday, but not until after a trio of Democrats tried unsuccessfully to divert some money the sponsor intends for charter schools.

The day for education started on the Senate floor, where the ASSET bill, the measure to make college more affordable for undocumented students, won final passage on a 20-14 party-line vote, without debate.

School Finance Act heads to next committee

House Bill 12-1345, this session’s version of the annual school funding bill, has prompted sighs of relief from lawmakers and educators because, for the first time in three years, it doesn’t cut average per-pupil spending.

The measure proposes $5.3 billion in school total program funding next year and keeps average statewide per pupil funding at the same level as this year – $6,474.24.

Witnesses from several education interest groups testified to the House Education Committee Monday afternoon and expressed that relief, although some noted that school funding is still below $1 billion “full funding” as called for by some interpretations of Amendment 23.

Others noted that flat funding will still means cuts – or no staff raises – in some districts.

Sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said, “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. … We’ve crafted a school finance bill that will truly hold districts harmless. We were very close to a breaking point for some of our smaller and rural districts.”

In addition to operating funds for school districts, the bill includes three significant additional provisions: $1.3 million to support boards of cooperative education services and small districts implement state reform measures, $6 million (instead of the current $5 million) for charter schools facilities costs and $480,000 to avoid cuts in the Colorado Counselor Corps program.

Three committee Democrats, Nancy Todd of Aurora, Judy Solano of Brighton and Andy Kerr of Lakewood, weren’t wild about the money for charter schools and proposed two amendments. One would have diverted the money to a fund to pay for retrofitting of schools without air conditioning; the other would have used the money for full-day kindergarten.

Massey, who hadn’t been shown the amendments before they were offered, asked committee members to vote no.

Todd, Solano and Kerr weren’t even able to persuade the panel’s other three Democrats to vote for either amendment, and both failed on 3-10 votes.

The funding bill isn’t uniformly good news for all districts. The complicated factors used to calculate funding for individual districts means some variations, and some districts will receive more money per student, some less. Estimated cost of living in individual districts, the number of at-risk students, long-term enrollment declines and district size all factor into how much money a district gets.

The measure next goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

Big bill, no debate

Shortly after the Senate convened Monday morning and finished the usual formalities, Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, stepped to the microphone to move for final passage of Senate Bill 12-015.

Most everyone in the chambers was prepared for a debate on the contentious ASSET bill, which would create a tuition rate more expensive than resident tuition but lower than out-of-state rates for undocumented students. Individual colleges could choose whether to offer the new rate.

But after Giron finished her brief remarks, no other senator rose to speak. On Feb. 10, the Senate spent nearly two hours debating the bill before it received preliminary approval – see story.

Quizzical looks took shape on faces around the room Monday. Most routine bills have final votes without debate, but it’s not unusual for big, emotional or ideological bills to prompt one last round of speeches.

Not Monday.

Senate President Brandon Schaffer, D-Longmont, called for the vote, and all 20 Democrats voted yes, with 14 Republicans voting no.

“I was surprised,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, afterwards. He’s Giron’s cosponsor. The bill has been parked on the Senate calendar while Johnston and other backers sought outside support, like endorsements from college boards of trustees and business leaders. They want to put pressure on the Republican-controlled House to pass it, or at least to have House leaders assign it to a favorable committee – such as House Education.

“We’re still going to have a very full conversation in the House,” Johnston predicted, saying he doesn’t know to which committee House leaders will send the bill.

Johnston said, hopefully, that maybe the lack of debate Monday was because opponents “didn’t think there were good arguments left to make.”

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and a GOP leader on education issues, said, “I was as surprised as anyone that nobody got up to speak. … I was stunned.” Spence said the fact the bill was up for a vote was mentioned during a morning GOP caucus but that there was no discussion about debate – or lack thereof.

Massey, chair of House Ed, said later in the day he doesn’t know which House committee will get the assignment, but he hopes his panel will get the nod. Massey, who voted against a similar proposal last year, has indicated support of this year’s bill.

A late-breaking lottery proposal

A new state lottery game would be created by Senate Concurrent Resolution 12-002, introduced Monday in the Senate. Proceeds of the new game would be used to fund programs for veterans.

There’s been some chatter among education lobbyists that a new lottery game potentially could divert money from the existing lottery, which helps fund – among a lot of other things – the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program. (BEST currently receives only a small amount from the Colorado Lottery; most of its money comes from state school lands revenues.)

The measure has a lengthy list of bipartisan cosponsors in both houses. A change in the lottery requires a voter-approved constitutional amendment, and SCR 12-002 would need a two-thirds majority in each house to get on the ballot.

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