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First day: Colorado lawmakers pledge ‘thoughtful’ school funding debate amid budget constraints

A uniformed color guard presents colors in a packed Colorado House of Representatives. The room is ornately decorated with green walls.

Democrats increased their majorities in both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly in 2023. They face budget challenges in delivering on their education agenda.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Colorado lawmakers convened Monday for the 2023 legislative session with promises to invest more in public education and address the cost of both college and child care. 

“For our students, teachers, and parents who want higher pay for educators and more resources in their classrooms, your Colorado dream will be our focus,” Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie said at the conclusion of a speech that also pledged to focus on expanding civil rights, protecting clean air and water, and advancing affordable housing and health care. 

But lawmakers also sounded notes of caution about the state’s capacity to spend more

Senate President Stephen Fenberg called for a “mature and thoughtful debate” on school funding levels.

“Let’s make another historic investment that isn’t just a one-year windfall, but instead is done in a way that is a sustainable and long-term promise to our teachers, students, and parents,” he said.

Senate President Stephen Fenberg is seen in profile with an orange background.

Senate President Stephen Fenberg of Boulder presides over an expanded Democratic majority.

RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

Last year lawmakers came close to meeting their constitutional obligations to fully fund K-12 education, with Republicans saying the state could have spent more if Democrats had reconsidered their priorities. This year, the budget forecast suggests Colorado may not be able to sustain much larger education spending for more than a few years.

In November, Colorado Democrats expanded their majorities in both chambers, and Gov. Jared Polis easily won reelection. Colorado is entering its fifth year with Democrats controlling all the levers of state government. The legislature is diverse, with women for the first time holding all Democratic leadership positions in the House. Nearly 40% of lawmakers are new to their jobs, potentially introducing new dynamics.

In the last four years the legislature passed free full-day kindergarten and a universal preschool program set to open to families this fall. The state endured a historic pandemic from which Colorado schools and higher education institutions are still trying to recover. 

In her opening-day remarks, McCluskie noted policy achievements from the previous term, including the launch of iMatter, a free online counseling service for children and teens, and $85 million to develop partnerships to connect education and job training.

“Our expanded Democratic majority is a recognition that Coloradans agree with the path we’ve charted and support a policy agenda and approach to governance that reflects our and their priorities,” she said. 

Two of the first bills introduced in the House give an indication of those priorities. One would expand access to student loan forgiveness for teachers, while another would create an assessment program to identify students with mental health challenges early and assist them in getting help. 

McCluskie promised additional investments without going into details. In an interview, she said she’s committed to making progress on rewriting the formula that distributes funding to school districts — one of the thorniest policy problems in education — but that it might take time to find the right approach. McCluskie also chairs the committee that’s spent years considering school finance issues. 

House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, acknowledged his party’s reduced representation and asked that the majority let other voices be heard. He said Republicans would work with the majority but also be vocal about advocating for their perspective. 

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, also recognized how small his caucus is with only 12 members, but said they would play a strong role in this year’s deliberations. He also called for lawmakers to come together to improve education for all students. 

Lundeen especially wants to see lawmakers tackle the problem of teachers leaving the profession, a complex challenge fueled by low pay, low prestige, and heavy workloads.

Colorado Democrats have long cast themselves as the party of public education, but now with a large majority, they are grappling with the implications of high inflation, the cost of other budget priorities, and questions about whether more K-12 funding is sustainable.

Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, said in an interview that legislators may be able to pay down the budget stabilization factor, the technical term for the money lawmakers withhold from K-12 education to pay for other budget priorities. But lawmakers are cautious to spend more given the budget uncertainty.

“I think the challenge is that it would require a concerted effort and for that to be the only thing that we do,” Moreno said.

He will push for more funding for higher education. Polis has called for $86 million more for higher education institution budgets and student financial aid, and for colleges to be able to raise tuition by up to 4%.

“That is difficult in this environment for students and families to absorb,” Moreno said. “I think anything we could do to limit those tuition increases as much as possible is something that I think we’re all interested in doing.”

House and Senate leaders already have plenty of competing priorities.

Both chambers’ leaders called for investments in public safety, especially after the deadly Colorado Springs Club Q shooting and in light of an ongoing fentanyl crisis. They hope to tackle affordability, including housing and health care. Both Republican and Democratic leaders promised bipartisanship in their deliberations.

Lundeen asked lawmakers to first listen and understand each other before launching into partisan debates. Fenberg said he also believes the Senate can “authentically deliberate” to solve problems.

In the House, the session opened with some friction as some Republicans nominated one of their own, state Rep. Scott Bottoms, to serve as speaker. That move went against the tradition of the House voting unanimously for a speaker from the majority party. 

But ultimately more than half of the Republican caucus, including Lynch, joined Democrats to support McCluskie for speaker.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a woman with shoulder-length red hair wearing a blue and green tartan-patterned jacket, smiles as she is elected speaker. Behind her, people clap enthusiastically. An electronic board on the wall above her shows the votes in favor and against.

Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie received the support of 55 representatives, including 11 Republicans.

Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

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