Dead bills: A day in the life of the Senate kill committee

DENVER — Senator Kevin Lundberg is wearing black cowboy boots, scuffed at the heel. Behind him the room is populated by what look like suburban women and a few school-age children. The bill on the hearing-room table is Lundberg’s proposed tax credit for families who enroll their kids in private- or home-school programs.

“This is not an idea that should be lightly thrown aside, particularly in the light of a post-Amendment 66 world,” he says.

Amendment 66 was a proposal that asked Colorado voters to pump a billion tax dollars a year into the state’s flagging public education system — which hovers around 42nd in the nation for per-pupil funding. Lundberg, a Christian conservative Loveland Republican, didn’t support the proposal and voters rejected it at a rate of almost two to one.

But today, Lundberg sits before the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee with the tired look of a man facing a forgone conclusion.

This is State Affairs

“The way the committee is being used today is totally unprecedented,” said senator Ted Harvey, a Republican from Highlands Ranch who sits on State Affairs and has served at the Capitol for more than 13 years.

Harvey acknowledged that the majority leadership has always had the power to send controversial or downright dysfunctional bills to a committee where they will be heard and then voted against. That’s fair, he said, but this year more than half the bills Republicans have introduced have been funneled into State Affairs to die. That’s different.

“Eighteen bills have been assigned to the State Affairs Committee, and not one of them is a Democrat’s bill,” he said during the second week of the session. “That’s 100 percent. Every single bill in State Affairs is a Republican bill.”

State Affairs has by far the broadest jurisdiction of any committee. There’s a decent argument to be made that just about any bill going through the state legislature concerns a “state affair.”

Selecting committee members is one of the majority leader’s most important jobs. Ideal State Affairs appointees are dependable. They’re not swing voters. They’re not from swing districts.

Recent events surely bolster those criteria: Two of last year’s committee members are no longer on the committee, because they are no longer legislators. Evie Hudak, whose Arvada seat was never a sure thing, ended up resigning under threat of recall. Former Chair Angela Giron of Pueblo was recalled from a historically watertight Democratic seat at least in part because her position on the committee put her at the very heart of last years’s toxic gun-control debate.

This time around the majority profile of the committee strongly favors lawmakers from solidly Democratic Denver, with Senator Jessie Ulibarri replacing Giron at the helm.

“Before running for office, I was a policy director at the [American Civil Liberties Union], so my career was built on making sure that voting is accessible for every single eligible voter,” said Ulibarri of his position as chair of the committee. In addition to focusing on military and veterans issues, State Affairs has direct oversight over the Department of State and deals in detail with Colorado’s elections system.

He said he’s not running the hyper-drive kill committee Republicans have been describing.

“John Andrews, who was the Senate President in 2004, sent 101 bills to the State Affairs Committee,” Ulibarri said a few weeks into the session. “Right now I think we’re at 18 bills assigned to State Affairs, so it’s a very different dynamic and I think the characterization is not correct.”

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Public education and religious schools

Karen Wick of the Colorado Education Association is now testifying on Lundberg’s bill. The state doesn’t hold private schools and homeschooling programs to the same standards as public schools, so they shouldn’t get public money. She says there’s not the same level of public accountability. It’s a kind of “taxation without representation issue,” she argues.

The committee discusses Wick’s testimony. Senator Harvey says he knows a disabled boy in Douglas County who can only get the educational opportunities he needs through a voucher program. Freshman Republican Senator Bernie Herpin says we’re effectively asking parents of private-school kids to pay twice for education. Once in taxes, once in tuition.

Wick argues that education is a big picture societal issue. She says everyone pays because everyone benefits from living in an educated community.

Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU-Colorado, testifies that the state Constitution prohibits funding sectarian institutions with public money. Lundberg’s bill doesn’t prohibit using the tax credits at religious schools, she argues, so it’s not even constitutional.

Boulder Senator Rollie Heath, majority leader and a strong advocate for increased public school funding, comes in to watch the proceedings. He sits down like he’s planning to be here for a while, his body loosely folded on itself, legs crossed, chin resting in the palm of his right hand.

“These dollars do not go to any schools,” says Lundberg. The bill is not unconstitutional because the public money goes to families to incentives their choice, not to directly cover the cost of private-school tuition.

Maes chooses her words carefully.

“By any other name, this remains a voucher. This is diverting money from the state treasury for a private purpose.”

There’s no public homeschool

Mitsy Sanchez steps up to the table. She’s testifying in favor of the bill. She is a Jefferson County parent and has brought along her children, Christian and Dominic, who are in 4th and 5th grades. They are homeschooled. The hearing room is their classroom today.

“It’s expensive to homeschool,” says Sanchez. “Not to mention paying for any classes that we can’t provide… things like music or art. It makes it difficult to face the fact that we’re essentially paying twice,” she says, looking at Herpin.

Herpin asks if she has to teach certain subjects to Christian and Dominic and then administer standardized tests to make sure they have learned the material.

“Yes, that is correct,” she says. “We are required to test our children.”

A string of mothers take the stand. One notes that homeschooling is hard work, no one would do it just for a measly $1,000 dollar tax credit. Another adds that sending a child to private school costs about $5,000 a year.

Every time someone finishes testimony, Lundberg stands, and if they are supportive, he also shakes their hand and thanks them. It may be that he does this because they are women. It’s impossible to know since all the witness so far have been women.

Natalie Mesko works for a nonprofit called Seeds of Hope. They raise money to send low-income students to Catholic schools. Lundberg’s bill would create an added tax benefit for her donors, who support roughly 1,500 students.

“Thank you for your work. You’re doing the work of angels,” says Harvey. But he wonders how her current nonprofit model, where donations are tax deductible, is different than using public money for private schools.

“Have you been sued by the ACLU for this unconscionable behavior?” he deadpans.

“I do know there’s a significant difference between a tax deduction and a tax credit,” Mesko says. She explains that it’s a matter of scale. Lundberg’s proposed tax credit is of much greater value than a deduction.

Even so, argues Lundberg, it’s the same constitutionally.

A man in a striped shirt comes up the front to testify. Lundberg stands.

Terrence Stachula says he’s sending his daughter to Catholic school even though there are good public schools in his neighborhood. He’s worked with Seeds of Hope for some time. He begins to explain, but then he loses his voice and cannot seem to find it.

“I’m surprised how emotional I all of a sudden became,” he says. His voice is raspy. “I hear some of these stories, the sacrifices these families make to send their kids to good schools…. they make great sacrifices.”

Stachula knows a lot of the names of Catholic schools in Colorado. He ticks off the names of the schools in districts represented by virtually everyone on the committee. It’s a long list of saints’ names.

The testimony is winding down and Committee Chair Ulibarri has been absent for nearly all of it, running his own wage-protection bill in the Judiciary Committee next door. Lundberg is a member of the Judiciary Committee. They’ll each vote on each other’s bills without hearing testimony. On crunch days like this one, this is the way things go.

Next time

There is a pause while a sergeant at arms, dressed as always in a maroon suit, is dispatched to pull Ulibarri from the Judiciary Committee.

The mothers gather to whisper.

Ulibarri walks in at a quick clip. Apologizes.

Lundberg delivers his closing statement. Again he asks that the committee to at least advance the measure to the Education Committee, where he feels it belongs.

Senator Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat, tried to put her severely disabled daughter into four separate private schools, none could or would take her. She also represents families living in poverty and she worries Lundberg’s bill would fail to bridge the access gap that yawns between public and private schools. In fact, she fears the tax credit would encourage a segregation between people who have money and those who don’t. She votes no on the bill.

Herpin is the product of a broken home, he explains. His father was an abuser who spent time in prison, but he also sent the children to private school. Herpin knows it was hard on his dad to pay for those schools and that his family would have appreciated the help this tax break might have afforded. He thinks this is the way to give kids a leg up.

“I didn’t turn out so badly,” he says. The lawmakers chuckle. Herpin votes in favor of the bill.

Harvey reminds Ulibarri that he wasn’t present for much of the testimony. He says not passing this bill would in effect force children to stay in failing schools.

“Let them figure out the transportation,” he says. Harvey votes aye.

Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, the only other veteran of the committee aside from Harvey, thanks people for coming to testify, for their passion. He says his parents were teachers. He says he grew up on the importance of public education. Jones votes nay.

Ulibarri apologizes for missing testimony. He says the committee overlap occurred because Lundberg asked to delay this hearing. He explains that he has a son with a learning disability and that he also has a same-sex partner as a co-parent. They tried to enroll their son in private schools. It didn’t work out.

“They said, ‘We’d love to have your kid, but we don’t want your family,” he says. “Let’s not enshrine discrimination in law.”

Ulibarri tells the people who came to testify that he’ll leave his cell phone number for anyone who wants to call and talk more about the bill. Then he votes no.

Lundberg’s bill dies, just as similar versions of the bill have died at least three times before today.

“Welcome to our world,” says Lundberg to the mothers who gather around him. “But we’ll be back … next time we’ll pack this place.”