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Rocky Friday for education bills

Lawmakers start running out of cash near the end of every legislative session, and that problem led to the defeat of three education-related bills Friday.

Another measure, a University of Colorado-backed bill on merit scholarships, lost its $3 million in funding, had a rocky committee hearing but was advanced to the floor.

That proposal, House Bill 13-1320, provided the liveliest education event of the day.

The bill, which seems primarily to benefit CU-Boulder, would allow state colleges and universities to tinker with the ratio of resident and out-of-state students and use part of the tuition income from additional non-residents to provide merit scholarships for top Colorado kids. (In general state schools must maintain resident undergraduate enrollment of at least 55 percent and have no more than 45 percent out-of-staters. Only Boulder and the Colorado School of Mines are approaching their limits.)

As it came from the House, the bill also included $3 million in state money for merit scholarships. In Friday’s general spirit of thrift, that was stripped at the request of sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

But, after reading a brand-new legislative staff analysis of the bill and hearing from Department of Higher education lobbyist Chad Marturano, committee members had plenty of questions.

Marturano stressed that the department and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia are officially neutral on the bill, but his testimony sounded skeptical. He noted that universities already can offer merit scholarships and talked about possible “unintended consequences” undermining current law on resident and non-resident ratios. “The lieutenant governor encourages the General Assembly to have this discussion, but in a direct way.”

Both Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora and Republican Sen. Mark Scheffel of Parker questioned the need for the bill. “For the public it seems like we’re gaming the system,” Scheffel said, referring to the bill’s provision that a Colorado merit scholar could count as two resident students for the purpose of calculating the ratio.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, wondered how much of the money raised from more non-resident students actually would go to scholarships. “The university is going to be the real winner. … The more we hear on this bill the more I’m inclined to say absolutely no. This is not the way to do it.”

Two CU administrators, Boulder admissions director Kevin McLennan and lawyer Jeremy Hueth, were repeatedly called to the witness table to answer committee questions, looking more nervous each time they came back. They promised that all qualified Colorado students would be admitted to CU regardless of how the ratio is tweaked.

“We’re looking for more Colorado students,” McLennan said, noting that there’s been a dip in Colorado high school graduate numbers in recent years.

After more than an hour of grilling, the bill did pass to the floor on a 5-3 vote. Five Democrats supported it, while three Republicans were opposed and one was in another committee.

But Todd, the author of a community colleges degree bill that was killed earlier partly due to the work of CU lobbyists, clearly was unhappy. She was bending Heath’s ear as the two left the hearing room, and after that she huddled with two CU lobbyists.

Those lobbyists later were recounting their votes for the bill’s consideration on the Senate floor. To pass, the measure will have to receive Senate preliminary and final approval and House agreement on amendments before adjournment day next Wednesday.

Lack of funding dooms measures

The bills killed Friday involved English language learners, an Advanced Placement incentives program and a workforce proposal. Here’s the rundown:

House Bill 13-1211 – This was a widely supported measure to upgrade programs for teaching English language learners, but in the end supporters didn’t have enough muscle to get the $7 million needed to fund the measure. It was postponed indefinitely on a 6-1 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee. (See this story for more details on the measure.)

House Bill 13-1056 – This was another bipartisan idea that had reasonable support. The bill proposed giving financial incentives to smaller rural school districts to enable them to provide Advanced Placement classes and tests to their high school students. The proposal included bonuses for teachers whose students took AP classes and tests. The bill’s estimated cost was $587,000 next year, rising to $827,000 in 2014-15. Senate Appropriations killed this one on a 5-2 vote.

Senate Bill 13-218 – The measure proposed creation of a $500,000 fund that state colleges could tap to match with business donations to create training and degree programs in fields where industries need workers. The House Appropriations Committee killed this one at the request of the sponsor. Letting the bill go apparently was a tradeoff for allowing House Bill 13-1165 to live. That $474,000 measure would provide funding for higher education institutions to create a “career pathway” for students seeking jobs in manufacturing industries. Both bills are sponsored by Heath, an advocate of strengthening higher education’s role in job training.While state revenues have improved in the last year, competing needs and the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget mean legislative leaders walk a tightrope every session trying to keep overall spending at a certain level.
Decisions about which bills live and which die are made in a complex process of lobbying, priority setting and deal-making, and the winners and losers don’t get finally sorted out until the last days of a session.

Members of the Joint Budget Committee, concerned about keeping a healthy balance in the State Education Fund for use in future years, this year resisted efforts to tap that fund too much. That created problems for the bills killed on Friday.

Other bills have better luck

Three education bills, none of which have price tags, did move on Friday, including:

Senate Bill 13-214 – This bill requires the Building Excellent Schools Today construction grant program to maintain a reserve to cover its annual debt payments (something that’s already done) and adds the legislative Capital Development Committee as the final approver of BEST project, after the Capital Construction Assistance Board and the State Board of Education. It got 65-0 final House approval. Since there were no House amendments, the bill goes to the governor.

Senate Bill 13-279 – This is the softened bill to require new school construction projects to meet certain energy efficiency standards. Originally opposed by districts because of cost concerns, the measure was amended enough to make most lobbyists “neutral” on the bill. The House voted 39-26 final approval, but the Senate will have to consider House changes.

House Bill 13-1021 – The Senate Friday voted 21-14 final passage for this measure, which is intended to reduce truancy. The most important provision of the bill limits to five days the length of time a student can be held in juvenile detention for violating a court truancy order. The bill also says that taking a truant student to court should be used “only as a last-ditch approach” by school districts and that district policies and practices should “minimize the need for court action and the risk that a court will issue detention orders against a child or parent.” The House will need to consider Senate amendments.

In other Capitol action, Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed House Bill 13-1220, which requires that individual educator evaluations be kept confidential.

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