Do-over $20M Denver Schools bill passes out of House as clock ticks down fast on legislative session

DENVER — They’re trying again at the Capitol to move a $20 million windfall for the Denver Public Schools system through the General Assembly after an earlier attempt was killed unceremoniously last week as part of an alleged long-game political strategy targeting Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent who is up for reelection next year.

House Bill 1391 was introduced again Friday by Rep. Lois Court, a Denver Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican. It passed out of the House this morning on a broad bipartisan vote, as did the earlier version, House Bill 1251. That version in March won overwhelming support. It passed 55 votes to 9. Today, House Bill 1391 passed 50 votes to 14.

The bill would readjust the amount of money the system contributes to its employee pension fund. Accountants, required this year to review the contribution rates, reported that the Denver pension fund was in good shape and that the system therefore could afford to lower its contribute rate from 13.75 percent to 10.15 percent. That would be the same amount other school districts pay in the state, and it would translate to more than $23 million per year that could be spent instead by the Denver system to hire staff and faculty and buy classroom equipment.

That the new version of the bill gained wide support in the House today signals that lower-chamber Republicans were not convinced by the vague arguments made in the press last week against the bill by the Senate Republicans who worked together to kill it.

After being pressed for answers by the media, Colorado Springs Republican Owen Hill, who voted against the original version of the bill in committee, told The Denver Post he thought the state’s public employees pension fund “was a real ticking time bomb.”

But the Denver schools pension fund is separate from the larger fund, as supporters of the bill have made clear.

Hill added that he had heard Bennet had been involved in “some bad deals that were cut” around the school’s pension fund. The Post talked to sources close to the bill who said Hill mentioned that “national Republicans didn’t want to see a bill passed that potentially could help Bennet,” as reporter Lynn Bartels described it.

Maria Sierra has two children who attend Denver’s public schools. She came to the Capitol today to watch the progress of new House Bill 1391. She said that what happened last week, when the first bill was killed without discussion and apparently for reasons that had little to do with its substance, demonstrates why parents have to stay informed.

“We have to watch what happens here. You see how it affects us,” she said. “So far, I have not heard a good reason for anyone to vote ‘no’ on this… We have to show them that community members are watching them.”

colorado senate

This year’s legislative session ends at midnight on Wednesday. The new bill has to be introduced in the Senate, then make it through at least one committee, and then through three floor readings before the curtain falls.

Nora Flood, the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, supports the bill.

“There’s no fiscal note,” she said. “This review and adjustment was promised five years ago… It has just been turned into a political football.”

Flood worries Senate President Bill Cadman, a Republican from Colorado Springs, may simply fail to introduce the bill this year in his chamber. “Then, what, we have to wait five more years for the next review?”

Greg Hatcher, a lobbyist for the Denver school system, says he’s watching to see what committee Cadman might send it to. A good sign would be if it landed in the chamber’s education, finance or appropriations committee. A bad sign would be if it was sent again to the State Affairs kill committee, where it would appear before the same three lawmakers who voted it down without discussion last week — Sens. Hill, Ray Scott from Grand Junction and Jerry Sonnenberg from Sterling.

“We’ll see,” Hatcher said, leaning on a brass rail in a Capitol hallway. He shrugged and raised his eyebrows. “There’s been no signal from the Senate. We’re in a waiting game. It’s that time of year. Same for a lot of bills.”

Top photo: Dvortygirl, Creative Commons, Flickr.

Photo two: The Colorado Senate working fast as the session winds down, Monday, May 4, 2015, by John Tomasic.