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Guns, union bills first out of the gate

A bill allowing school boards to approve carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds and two bills affecting union membership were among 17 education-related measures introduced on the opening day of the Colorado legislature Wednesday.

Also introduced were bills intended to reduce truancy, increase availability of school breakfasts and help rural districts offer Advanced Placement classes.

The gun and union bills have only Republican sponsors and likely face uphill prospects in a General Assembly controlled by Democrats. Other “statement” bills introduced by Republicans include measures on religious liberty and the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. (Statement bills are measures intended to make a philosophical or political point but that have little chance of passage. Democrats do the same thing when they’re in the minority.)

The gun measure is Senate Bill 13-009, which would allow school boards and charter school boards to adopt policies allowing a district or school employee to carry a concealed handgun on school grounds if that person holds a valid concealed-weapons permit. The sponsors are GOP Sens. Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch and freshman Rep. Lori Saine of Dacono. The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, not Education.

Here’s a look at the two union membership bills:

  • Senate Bill 13-017 would allow teachers and other school employees to opt in or out of union membership at any time, instead of only during specified periods. The sole sponsor is freshman Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.
  • Senate Bill 13-024 would forbid employers from requiring employees to join or remain a member of a union or to pay dues to a union or make charitable donations in lieu of dues. The bill would apply to public employers, such as school districts and state colleges. The lone sponsor is new GOP Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs.

Other Republican statement bills that debuted Wednesday are:

  • House Bill 13-1040 – Would increase from three to seven the number of years used in averaging highest salary to calculate a retiree’s PERA pension benefits. It would apply only to workers who enter PERA after Dec. 31, 2013. All state teachers are covered by PERA. Sole sponsor is Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.
  • House Bill 13-1066 – Would prohibit government entities, including school districts, from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion. Some conservatives have complained that school district policies can infringe on free expression of religion. Priola is again the sole sponsor.
  • Senate Bill 13-006 – Would prohibit the legislature from reducing school funding if needed to pay for increased Medicaid costs. (This is a partisan dig at Obamacare and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recently announced plan to expand Medicaid coverage.) The sponsor is Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, who previously served in the House.

Other, less ideological education bills introduced Wednesday include:

  • House Bill 13-1006 – Would require every school with 70 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch to offer a free breakfast to each student in the school. Individual schools could decide on program details, but breakfast would have to be served after the start of the school day. The bill is being pushed by the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a coalition of other advocacy groups. Prime sponsors are freshmen Democratic Reps. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo.
  • House Bill 13-1021 – Would require school districts to monitor students with truancy problems and take steps to reduce truancy. Sponsors are Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.
  • House Bill 13-1023 – Would require every school district to adopt policies on academic acceleration for students who want to graduate early. A legislative study committee suggested this measure. The prime sponsor is Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock.
  • House Bill 13-1047 – Would allow students to participate in extracurricular activities in other districts if their home districts didn’t offer an activity. Sponsors are Democratic Rep. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge and Nancy Todd of Aurora.
  • House Bill 13-1056 – Would create a pilot program of financial incentives to schools and teachers in small districts for successful completion of Advanced Placement classes and tests. Lone sponsor is freshman Rep. James Wilson, R-Salida.
  • Senate Bill 13-015 – Would permit school boards to adopt policies that would allow members to participate in meetings “electronically.” Sponsors are Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

For summaries of and links to the texts of these measures and other education bills introduced Wednesday, see the Education Bill Tracker.

Opening day festivities

The opening day of a legislative session is long on ceremony, procedural matters and bipartisan good feelings but devoid of actual legislative work.

A key feature of the day is speeches by majority and minority party leaders in each House.

House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, was the only leader who mentioned specific education proposals, saying Republicans will “prioritize funding for K-12 and higher education,” push for “creating a special fund offering merit-based scholarships,” try to make Advanced Placement classes available to more students and direct more resources to vocational programs.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, referred to the importance of a strong education system to economic development and called for – in general terms – passage of a bill to reduce college tuition for undocumented students.

Education wasn’t mentioned in speeches by Democratic Senate President John Morse and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, both of Colorado Springs. Both gave somewhat idiosyncratic speeches, with Morse telling a long story about a tragic accident he responded to as a paramedic in the 1970s and Cadman dwelling at length on the wildfire that devastated some Colorado Springs neighborhoods last year.

BEST bill in the works

Members of the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday agreed unanimously to have staff members draft a bill that would require the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program to maintain a formal reserve that would be used to help pay off the program’s lease-purchase commitments.

Some lawmakers have been concerned that the BEST program takes revenue that should go into the school lands permanent fund and about whether the program needs more legislative oversight.

Members said the reserve requirement should be a starting point and that they might want to add additional provisions to the bill later.

“This is going to be a moving target,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.

What’s next

New bills will continue to flow over the next few days, but otherwise things will be relatively uneventful at the Capitol.

Through the end of next week a lot of committee time will be taken up with briefings required by the SMART Government Act, a law passed a few years ago that requires state agencies to develop strategic plans and report annually to legislative committees about the progress being made on those plans.

“Opening day” for SBE

It also was a turn-the-page day for the State Board of Education, which elected officers and welcomed a new member.

Paul Lundeen, a Republican who represents the 5th District, was unanimously elected chair and Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, was elected vice chair.

Pam Mazanac, who was elected in November as a Republican representing the 6th District, attended her first board meeting as an official member.