House approves historic public education funding; rural broadband heads to Senate

House gives initial approval to Student Success Act 

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HB 1292, otherwise known as the Student Success Act, has been a long time in the making. Almost as soon as Amendment 66 — the measure to raise taxes to put $1billion back into K-12 funding — failed in November, lawmakers began to work with stakeholders to see what could be done to re-fund public education without new taxes.

What they heard overwhelmingly was that the big school-funding needs to be restored after massive cuts made during the recession through a mechanism known as the “negative factor.” Through a serious of amendments, the bill now replenishes that funding to the tune of $110 million annually.

Most of the debates today focused on how even more funding could be used in the blanket buy-down —  which includes funds the districts lost beginning in 2009 and would, once restored, be able to use however they like.

Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker suggested pulling the $20 million the bill currently allocates towards funding early literacy through Colorado’s READ Act and instead putting it towards restoring the across-the-board school cuts. While Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling spoke for many Republicans when he called the amendment a true example of local control, most Democrats came out swinging against it.

“I don’t think anyone disagrees that we should make sure everyone can read by the third grade,” said Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino just before the Holbert amendment failed.

Another amendment offered by one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Millie Hamner, passed. It cuts the amount of money in the bill directed towards putting schools’ spending transparency online, with a particular focus on relieving small rural districts.

A second successful amendment, offered by Rep. Tim Dore of Elizabeth, removed prioritization on how schools should spend their construction funds. While the bill’s initial language would have focused those funds on building classrooms for full-day kindergarden, the amendment lets schools do whatever they want with the construction money, including basic maintenance.

“As amended the Student Success Act begins the process of rebuilding the K-12 funding that was struck so hard during the past five years of Colorado’s recession, within the parameters of the state budget,” concluded Hamner, noting that if passed in conjunction with her School Finance Act, a historic $500 million will be invested in Colorado public schools.


House approves the other school funding bill, too

The House also gave initial approval today to the annual School Finance Act, HB 1298. Co-sponsored by Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon and Rep. John Buckner of Aurora, the bill implements the state’s school funding formula with an added $30.5 million going to support English language learners and $17 million towards early childhood education.

As with the companion bill, the Student Success Act (see above), much of the floor debate centered on whether it’s better to use limited resources in a targeted way, or to use all available resources in a general way.

Rep. Kevin Priola of Adams County suggested pulling the $17 million the bill would allocate to getting more at-risk kids into preschool and kindergarden and instead using it to restore education funding across the board.

This amendment was widely supported by most Republicans who, like Democrats, have heard constituents emphasize the importance of restoring the funding cuts while retaining districts’ discretion over spending.

Aurora Rep. Jenise May, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, pointed out that because of the peculiar construction of the education fund-cutting measure the legislature passed at the beginning of the recession, devoting $17 million to buy-downs would actually cost a lot more over time.

“Seventeen million today means we’ll have to cut tomorrow. That’s not fiscally responsible,” said May.

Others opposed pulling early education funding on a purely policy basis, saying that research shows early interventions are the most successful.

“Kids in early education are 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime. They’re also less likely to be in special education classes or to drop out,” said Rep. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge.

While the Priola amendment failed, a compromise amendment from Rep. Murray passed with bipartisan support.

Rep. Jim Wilson pointed out that while the legislature has a constitutional responsibility to fund K-12 education with the School Finance Act, it actually only funds 58 percent of full-day kindergarden costs. While closing that gap requires more money than the General Assembly has on hand this year, Murray’s amendment would prioritize kindergardeners in the bill’s allocation of 5,000 free full-day early education slots for at-risk students.

With that crucial amendment in place, the bill got bipartisan support on initial approval and will come up for a final vote this week.


Telecommunications bills aimed at expanding rural broadband speed towards Senate 

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Today the House gave bipartisan and final passage to a slew of telecomm bills aimed at deregulating the market and creating added fiscal incentives in order to push high-speed broadband to all of Colorado’s rural communities.

You can read a breakdown of the legislation in yesterday’s notebook.


Farmers to get tax break for donating unused produce 

The House gave final approval to HB 1119 today, which gives farmers a tax credit for the excess crops they donate.

“Our farmers and ranchers, who are in many cases already giving excess crops to charity, should get credit for doing that,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Dore of Elizabeth.

The tax credit is good for up to 25 percent of the wholesale value of any food producers donate to hunger-relief organizations up to $5,000 a year. If that figure exceeds how much the producer owes in taxes, the remainder can roll over and be applied to the next year for up to five years.

The bill is a major priority for groups across Colorado working to reduce hunger.

Michelle Ray of Hunger Free Colorado called the measure a “win-win” for Colorado producers and hungry families. She noted that one in six Coloradans have faced a time when they weren’t able to buy food and that the bill, if passed, will “provide struggling Coloradans with more access to fresh, healthy, locally-produced food—fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat products.”

With the House’s bipartisan approval, the measure now heads to the Senate.

To salvage or not to salvage?

Aurora Sen. Nancy Todd’s bill to make sure a totaled car gets a salvage title even if it’s repaired hit heavy traffic this morning in the Senate.

Todd said HB 1299 is simply a consumer protection bill focused on providing fair warning when someone buys a used car.

Sen. George Rivera worried that the bill would put a serious dent in the value of many old cars and that it would particularly hurt Colorado’s least wealthy drivers.

“Although salvaged vehicles are road worthy, they are still more difficult to sell… it’s a scarlet letter,” said Rivera.

carAfter much debate, a compromise amendment was put forward that would exempt collectable cars from getting a salvage title if they’ve had a lot of work done. But for those who worried about the bill’s impact on low-income populations, the amendment was didn’t begin to satisfy.

“This bill still takes away financially challenged peoples’ most valuable asset,” said Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray Colorado. Sen. Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch agreed, saying the collectables amendment only protected rich people’s old cars and asking why were theirs any better?

Despite these concerns, the collectables amendment passed and the bill overall got final passage in the Senate. It now heads to the House for approval of the amendment before going to the Governor’s desk.


House approves critical clerks

Reps. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and John Buckner of Aurora pulled off the impossible today and got a bipartisan election-related measure through a chamber without a major floor fight. HB 1354 allows a county clerk and recorder to ask for judicial review of the Secretary of State’s rule-making around elections if the clerk feels those rules might be in violation of the state Constitution or Statutes.

Rep. Buckner noted that this is actually something the clerks already thought they could do, so the bill just brings current law up to practice.

Rep. Gardner admitted that it was certainly a public policy decision to grant clerks this kind of authority, but added that it wasn’t partisan. Both Denver’s Democratic Clerk and El Paso’s Republican Clerk testified in favor of the bill.

The measure got initial approval today without much discussion and will come up for a final vote this week.