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Legislative panel

Sen. Mike Merrifield, center, is flanked by JBC members Pat Steadman (left) and Bob Rankin.

Returning Democratic lawmaker vows testing cutback

New state Sen. Mike Merrifield draw applause from school board members Thursday when he promised, “I will definitely carry some legislation that will push back on the amount of testing that I think is drowning our education system.”

Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat who previously served in the House, appeared with five other lawmakers at a legislative forum during the Colorado Association of School Boards convention.

The annual forum usually provides good indications of top education issues in the upcoming legislative session.

Merrifield was one of two Democrats on the panel, but his comments fit right in with the reduce-testing, reduce-regulation, local-control statements made by Republicans.

And his remarks indicated that GOP lawmakers, who were the prime critics of state testing during the 2014 session, probably have found a Democratic ally.

“I’m actually looking forward to working with those across the aisle and learning about issues I’ve perhaps been rigid about in the past,” Merrifield said. He added he’s still working on how much testing can be cut but said “down to the bare bones as far as I’m concerned.”

Republican Sen. Owen Hill also highlighted testing, asking, “How do we listen and respect the voices of so many who’ve said this testing is over-burdensome.” The trick, Hill said, is cutting back on testing without weakening accountability or violating federal requirements.

“I think we can do this. … I hope this can be a focus this year.”

Watch a video of the legislative panel, courtesy of CASB

Hill also is from Colorado Springs, and people who follow El Paso County politics might think he and Merrifield are about as far apart as politicians can be.

But both men made a point of saying they’d recently had breakfast together to discuss education issues.

“I was almost shocked to learn how much Senator Hill and I have in common. That gives me a feeling of confidence that we’ll be able to work together,” Merrifield said. Hill will chair the Senate Education Committee next year, and Merrifield will be one of four Democratic members.

Hill also said reducing testing and other “unfunded mandates” could be a way to partially address school board concerns about K-12 funding cuts of recent years.

The upcoming session “provides a great opportunity to empower you with resources and use this as an opportunity to scale back on some of these mandates,” Hill told the audience of board members from around the state, meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

“It’s time to open up this box of mandates,” agreed Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth.

Lawmakers sympathetic on funding but make no promises

The panel spent a lot of time on K-12 funding, a sore point for boards and districts because years of cuts have left a $900 million shortfall in school support, a gap called the negative factor.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he has “lots of questions” about both Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $200 million cut in the negative factor – which would be temporary – and about an additional $70 million increase suggested by a group of superintendents.

The state’s 2015-16 budget is “an extremely intricate combination of moving parts – with a lot of special interests involved,” said Steadman, the most experienced member of the Joint Budget Committee.

The negative factor has sometimes been compared to an unpaid credit card balance. “The balance on that credit card will take a long time to be paid off,” warned Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Carbondale.

“The JBC will be strong supporters of your needs – to the extent we can,” added Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, a new member of the budget panel. He also said he has concerns about the usefulness of a one-time reduction in the negative factor.

Tracee Bentley, Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said the governor feels a one-time reduction would be fiscally prudent and still help districts pay some of the costs of recent state mandates.

CASB lobbyist Jane Urschel, who moderated the panel, said, “We want it to be recurring money, of course, but we believe districts can handle one-time money.”