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Long march begins for long bill

State senators Monday started diving into the details of the proposed 2013-14 state budget, which contains good news for education and all state agencies as Colorado recovers from four years of tight revenues and budget cuts.

But the budget proposal, Senate Bill 13-230, only sets a starting point for K-12 spending next year. Education interest groups are anxiously awaiting introduction of a separate bill that’s expected to contain additional proposed increases for school districts.

That bill, known as the annual school finance act, is expected to be introduced sometime in the next week, setting the stage for a more focused debate on school funding for 2013-14. (Technicalities in state school law require two separate bills for funding schools.)

“Don’t get too hung up on the numbers” in the main budget bill, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, told members of the Senate Education Committee Monday afternoon during a briefing on SB 13-230. “The school finance act will come in and make additional changes and supply additional funding.” Steadman is chair of the Joint Budget Committee and will be a prime cosponsor of the finance bill.

The main budget bill, known informally as the “long bill,” proposes total spending of about $4.56 billion for the Department of Education, for all programs and from all revenue sources. That’s an increase of about 2.9 percent from the current 2012-13 budget year.

The most closely watched number in the CDE budget is what’s called “total program funding,” the combination of state and local funds that pays for basic district operating expenses.

The long bill proposed total program funding of about $5.4 billion, $3.8 billion from the state and nearly $2 billion from local district revenues. That’s an increase of about 3 percent and primarily covers growth in enrollment and inflation, as required by the state constitution. Total program may receive an additional increase from the coming school finance act.

In the bill, total program is still about 16 percent below the $6.5 billion that would be required by full application of the constitutional formula that requires annual increases in K-12 spending. During the worst of the economic downturn a few years ago the legislature decided that the automatic increases applied only to base school funding, not total school funding, allowing lawmakers to cut school support in order to balance the budget.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, told Education News Colorado Monday that she hopes the school finance act will contain additional funding for total program, early childhood education, special education, English language learners, charter school facilities costs and for implementation of the 2012 early literacy law, known as the READ Act. She said no total price tag for the bill has been determined yet. Hudak is chair of Senate Education and will be a prime sponsor of the finance act.

The State Education Fund, a dedicated account used only to fund schools, is expected to have $1 billion going into the new budget year. Steadman was asked during Monday’s briefing if a big chunk of that money could be used to increase school funding.

“We don’t want to go crazy,” Steadman said, “so we don’t fall off a cliff” when the education fund is drawn down. (The fund is scheduled to receive a one-time infusion of surplus state revenues at the end of the 2012-13 budget year, which closes June 30.)

What’s in it for higher ed

The long bill contains an additional $30 million in direct state support for state colleges and universities, the amount requested by Gov. John Hickenlooper. That amounts to about $543 million, which is only about a quarter of total college spending, most of which is now funded by student tuition.

One side effect of increasing state revenues is the availability of money for construction and maintenance. Steadman said the higher education system will receive about $113 million for that in 2013-14. In recent tight budget years construction spending was axed, forcing some colleges to raise student fees to pay for building projects.

“To see our capital construction budget rebound like this, it is like the good old days.” Steadman told the members of Senate Education.

The other school finance act

Ask people are the Capitol about the “school finance act” and you’re likely to get another question: “Which one?”

The confusion is created by Senate Bill 13-213, the proposal to overhaul the state’s formula for funding schools. It’s titled the “Future School Finance Act,” and it’s awaiting Senate floor action. (See this story for the most recent developments on that bill.) Even if that bill passes, it would require voter approval of a tax increase estimated at $1 billion. (See this story for an update on proposed ballot measures to raise that money.)

What’s next

The Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses will consider the long bill on Tuesday, and the measure and related bills will be considered in committee late in the afternoon. That sets the bill up for preliminary floor consideration on Wednesday, with a final vote on Thursday. Both houses are taking Friday off, and the whole budget process repeats in he House next week.

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