Lawmakers inquire about healthcare costs and segregated classrooms

Lawmakers ask voters to shore up state Constitution


The House passed a resolution today that will ask voters this November if they think the number of petition signatures required to put a Constitutional amendment on the ballot should be doubled and if those signatures should be drawn from every congressional district across the state.

“This bill is about incentivizing changes to state law and not to our Constitution. It is about making certain that our Constitution is a foundational document, as it was always designed to be,” said Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, one of the resolution’s sponsors.

For the 2014 election cycle, 90,000 signatures are required to put either a law-changing or Constitution-changing question on the ballot.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, the bill’s co-sponsor noted that the issue of statewide representation was particularly important to his rural constituents.

Colorado is one of just three states to require the same number of signatures for an amendment to law as to the Constitution and this resolution marks lawmakers’ ninth try at raising the bar on Constitutional amendments. In 2008 voters narrowly rejected an effort that would likewise have required broader geographic representation in the petition process.

Getting a question to the voters is no easy process, even at the Capitol, but the House did pass Court and Coram’s resolution with the required two-thirds approval by a vote of 47-18 today.


Senate struggles to help rising families afford child care

Certain buzz phrases show up in a large number of bills each session and this year “the cliff effect” is certainly one. When subsidy programs work, families who receive public assistance for things like food and child care costs are able to work more and get offered a raise. However, taking that raise may push them right over the line where they qualify for assistance, which may be worth more than the raise. That puts a family in a tough spot and flips the policy’s intention on its head.

This is a particular issue around child care, since Colorado ranks in the top 10 nationally for the most expensive day care. Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, is carrying SB 3, which will put $1.2 million into as many as 10 county pilot programs that strive to taper down a family’s child care assistance money instead of pushing families off the proverbial cliff once their income exceeds a certain percentage of the federal poverty line.

“This will encourage parents to continue to work towards self sufficiency and at same time their very young children, three years old or younger, will still have consistent access to high-quality, affordable care,” said Nicholson.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, opposed the bill. He said that while he agrees child care is far too expensive, he worried these programs would only push the cliff effect out further into higher income brackets. Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, agreed, adding the $1.2 million would be better spent by returning it directly to taxpayers who could use it to pay for child care, healthy food, or whatever they desired.

Nicholson argued that the bill’s funds, which are down from an original $14 million, would be best used in a targeted fashion — in this case ensuring continued care for as many as 500 Colorado toddlers.

Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, added that numerous public and private groups are in the course of researching why Colorado’s child care costs are so high. That information is likely to be published after this session winds up, but legislators will be looking towards a more substantial re-working of child care in the state next session.

In the meantime, the Senate gave SB 3 initial approval.


Senate approves bipartisan commission to investigate healthcare costs

With premiums in Colorado resort communities ranking among some of the highest in the nation and little evidence showing that the Affordable Care Act has lowered the underlying cost of healthcare in Colorado, Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, proposed SB 187, which will create a bipartisan commission to study the actual costs at the root of expensive medicine and insurance.

The pair offered a series of amendments on the floor today which insured that the commission will include members of the business community, that there’s a focus on rural healthcare costs, that the commission will look at the specific impact of state legislation on cost and that there are an equal number of appointees from either side of the aisle. No lawmakers will be on the commission, but just about everyone else involved in healthcare will be from hospital administrators and doctors to insurance providers and consumer advocates.

“As a Republican, I don’t find it credible for people to say let’s repeal the federal health bill and just stop the sentence there. It must be repeal and replace,” said Roberts of her motivation for supporting the commission. She acknowledged that while she and Aguilar may differ on their support of the ACA, both share the common goal of making the best care available to the most people and that’s what the commission will look into.

The Senate gave the bill initial approval today and it may come up for a final vote as early as tomorrow.


Senate approves $20 million for firefighting planes

Today the Senate gave initial approval to SB 164, the bill behind the nearly $20 million the state plans to spend on building an arial firefighting fleet.

“This is our time to stand up for Colorado, our lives, our water, our land and our air, against the destructive forces of wildfire,” said the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction.

Co-sponsored by Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, the bill authorizes the state to buy two small fire-spotting planes and lease four helicopters and four tankers.


House calls on Department of Education to report on classroom segregation

Today the House gave initial approval to HB 1376, a bill which will require the Department of Education to produce an annual report for every school and district about what kinds of students are in various class types and how that impacts student performance on standardized tests.

Co-sponsored by Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, and Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, the bill would also require schools to use this “opportunity gap” data when they make plans to improve their schools’ performance on standardized tests.

Moreno, who attended a high school in Adams county which offered three times as many remedial courses as it did advanced ones, argued that many kids are never even given the opportunity to take challenging courses. He added that the report will also provide valuable information about the potential segregation and warehousing of English language learners, a practice which he noted doesn’t help anyone learn a new language.

Many of the legislators who support the bill drew from their personal experiences in Colorado public schools.

“I went to Thomas Jefferson High School, which was the most diverse school in the state at the time. The problem was the classrooms weren’t,” said Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, recalling that he had to ask to test into Advanced Placement courses where he was one of only two black students.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, a former superintendent, said the study was a waste of $150,000 because everyone knows that students in honors and AP classes do better on standardized tests. He added that if discrimination based on factors such as race, class, physical ability or gender is causing schools to misplace students, that is a school, and not a state, issue.

Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, countered that the bill was a perfect example of how the state could partner with local school administration by providing good data that would shape smart curricular decisions.