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College merit aid bill passes House

Updated 9:45 a.m. May 1 – The House voted 59-5 Wednesday morning to pass the bill that would revise the state merit scholarship program.

On Tuesday evening the had given preliminary approval to the bill, which would provide a modest reintroduction of state merit scholarships, a program that hasn’t existed for years because of budget cuts.

Montage of Colorado colleges
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The bill has the backing of the powerful University of Colorado lobby and is sponsored by the majority and minority leaders in the House. Preliminary House consideration of the bill consumed all of three minutes, including adoption of an amendment.

The bill does two things. First, it allows state colleges to adjust their ratio of resident and non-resident students in order to admit more non-residents, thereby raising more revenue from out-of-state tuition, part of which can be recycled into merit scholarships for high-achieving Colorado students.

The second part of the bill would allocate $3 million in state funds for merit scholarships, money that would be spread among state colleges and universities. The floor amendment adopted Tuesday would restrict the scholarships to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes and have a 3.7 grade point average. The minimum award would be $2,500 a year.

The Department of Higher Education reportedly still has concerns with the bill, so Senate debate on the measure could be interesting. If the House gives the bill final approval on Wednesday, it could be considered by a Senate committee this week.

Another recently introduced measure, Senate Bill 13-279, squeaked out of the Senate on an 18-17 vote Tuesday and now has to go through the whole process in the House – with just six days left in the 2013 session (unless lawmakers decide to meet over the weekend).

The measure, by Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, would require new school buildings to meet various energy-efficiency standards. A couple of Democratic senators joined all Republicans in voting no on the bill, which is disliked by school districts because they’re worried about extra costs.

“This bill is terrible,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. “This bill does nothing for our kids.”

It’s been assigned to House Education, which is expected to hear it on Wednesday.

Votes were more lopsided on three other bills that received final Senate approval, including:

  • House Bill 13-1117 – This bureaucratic bill is nonetheless a Hickenlooper administration priority and would consolidate various early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services. Passed 21-14.
  • House Bill 13-1194 – The measure expands eligibility for resident tuition rates to certain military dependents. Senators “hazed” freshman sponsor Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, by initially voting no. “For a minute there I thought I was in the twilight zone, and then I realized I was just on the floor of the Senate,” she quipped. Passed 34-1.
  • House Bill 13-1005 – This proposal would allow the community college system to create pilot, relatively short programs that combine adult basic education and vocational training programs. Passed 35-0.

Three education-related measures only cleared committee on Tuesday so still need floor consideration.

At a rare early-morning meeting, the Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 to pass House Bill 13-1021. The bill would limit jailing of truant students for no more than five days at a stretch and encourage school districts to improve their services for “chronically absent” students so that they don’t end up in court for truancy.

This bill was introduced on the first day of the session in January but has been rattling around ever since while school district and criminal justice interests tried to strike a balance on how many new requirements to impose on districts.

Another bill that’s been around since January moved from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to appropriations on Tuesday.

House Bill 13-1171 would allow schools to stock epinephrine injectors for use on students experiencing allergic reactions. (Currently only students with known allergies can bring injectors to have them on hand at school.) This measure also has been subject to in-the-weeds negotiations, primarily involving the role of school nurses and liability protections. The bill would allow other school employees to give the injections, if they’re properly trained.

“We have had many hours of working on an amendment,” said sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.

During a quick meeting on the House floor, the House Appropriations Committee voted 8-5 to advance House Bill 13-1007, which also was introduced on opening day. Later in the day the full House gave the bill preliminary approval. Update: The bill got final approval on a 37-26 vote Wednesday morning.

The bill would revive the Early Childhood and School Readiness Legislative Commission, a study group of lawmakers. The commission is a pet project of two Democratic lawmakers who are active on education issues, Sen. Evie Hudak and Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, both of Westminster. The bill was in jeopardy but has been kept alive by stripping all legislative funding from the commission. Instead, an outside group, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, will provide staff support for the group, and lawmakers won’t receive any expense reimbursement for serving on the commission. (The Children’s Campaign has supported the body in the past.)

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