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Bill would change rules for BEST

A legislative committee would have the final say over state-assisted school construction projects under a bill now being considered at the statehouse.

The Capital Development Committee on Tuesday approved a draft of a bill that would give the panel oversight over some Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) construction projects, set formal procedures for maintaining a reserve and change annual timelines for the program.

Created by a 2008 law, the BEST program was the state’s first foray into large-scale school construction projects, previously the responsibility of local school districts. (The program was created partly in response to a lawsuit that sought more state construction funding.)

Since its inception the program has given out 181 grants affecting 284 school facilities worth a total of $979 million. The Capital Construction Assistance Board pools state and local funds to pay off large projects such as new schools and makes direct cash grants to districts for smaller projects. The estimated unmet facilities needs of Colorado schools total about $18 billion.

But legislative attitudes have changed since the BEST law was passed, and some lawmakers worry that the program doesn’t have enough oversight and draws too heavily on revenues from state school trust lands. Critics worry BEST could theoretically assume liabilities that would require a legislative bailout. The program receives $40 million a year from state school trust lands revenues.

Legislative concern about BEST, which is concentrated among members of the Joint Budget Committee, first surfaced last year but no legislation was passed. Discussion resumed before the 2013 session, with members of the Capital Development Committee, especially Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, taking the lead.

Lawmakers, program administrators and others met for several hours Friday to work out the bill draft, which the committee discussed Tuesday morning.

What’s in the bill draft

Key elements of the draft include:

• Giving the committee a final yes-or-no review of the entire annual BEST priority list after it has been recommended by the construction board and the State Board of Education, which currently has the final say on BEST projects.

• Formally requiring the program to maintain a balance equal to the amount of lease-purchase payments for the upcoming year. The construction board currently does this voluntarily. Some lawmakers had urged creation of an entirely separate reserve fund, but BEST administrators were concerned building that fund would cripple its ability to make cash grants, at least for one year.

• Setting new deadlines for the program. The SBE currently decides on BEST grants in August, but the bill would require a board decision by June 20. The Capital Development Committee would have until July 15 to accept or reject the entire list. If lawmakers rejected the list the program could amend it and resubmit, and the committee would have to make its final decision by Aug. 15. (Committee review would apply only to lease-purchase grants, not cash awards.)

• Requiring that the BEST program’s annual report, made every February, also include an estimate of income and project totals for the following year.

Final details of the bill draft remain to be worked out, including a delay in implementing the new timetable until 2014.

Program director Ted Hughes told the committee, “We are already practicing what this bill is going to put into law.” He said he’ll brief the construction board on the proposal Wednesday. “I’m hopeful that they’ll be supportive.”

Schwartz, one of the program’s strongest legislative supporters, said, “I just want to thank everyone for their hard work. … I think we’ve come to a place of agreement.”

The Capital Development Committee is a year-around panel with members from both houses responsible for reviewing and approving a wide variety of state construction projects.

Easy come, easy go

The House Finance Committee Tuesday passed House Bill 13-1144 on a 3-1 vote, but not before removing the section that made it interesting to education observers.

The main purpose of the bill is to make sales taxes on cigarettes permanent. Smokes were exempt from the tax until 2009, when the legislature lifted that exemption to raise revenue in a tight budget year. The exemption is set to kick back in later this year, but HB 13-1144 would prevent that.

The House, at the suggestion of minority Republicans, directed that the $28 million a year in extra revenues go to higher education. Senate Finance stripped that amendment, meaning the revenue would go into the state general fund. Smokers pay an “excise” tax on cigarettes on top of sales tax.

Senate confirms White

The Senate Tuesday confirmed Republican former Sen. Jean White of Hayden to fill a vacant seat on the state community colleges board, expiring at the end of this year.

White’s nomination by Gov. John Hickenlooper wasn’t particularly controversial, but there was a touch of irony in her confirmation. White was knocked out of her seat during a bitter GOP primary with then-Rep. Randy Baumgardner, who went on the win the Senate seat. White was hit with attack literature by an out-of-state group that blasted her for supporting last year’s unsuccessful civil unions legislation.

White’s husband, former GOP Sen. Al White, currently heads Hickenlooper’s state tourism office.