Eastern Colorado lawmakers have big plans in 2016 to address their districts’ concerns about education, land rights and water storage.
You’ll have to forgive Rep. Jon Becker if he doesn’t sponsor a slew of bills in the legislative session which begins this week. He has one driving focus: rural education.
He plans to sponsor a measure asking voters to direct 25 percent of the state’s lottery proceeds to K-12. It’s not a novel idea. At least a half-dozen states put a portion of their lottery money into education. He also plans to sponsor a bill to ensure high school students get the proper credit when they take college courses.
Becker’s also frustrated with the budget cuts he says have hurt rural schools more than their larger, urban counterparts. When lawmakers went home for the summer last May, the state was still short about $900 million in covering its obligations under Amendment 23, which guarantees per-student funding increases at the rate of inflation.
The shortfall began under a 2009 budget gimmick that allowed lawmakers to decide how much they had to spend on K-12 and then cut the budget to fit that target.
Becker, who’s married to a kindergarten teacher, said rural school districts face tougher problems – recruiting and retaining teachers for example – than larger, urban school districts.
It will be hard to persuade two-thirds of the lawmakers from each chamber — 42 votes in the House, 24 in the Senate — to support the measure, which will need votes from both Democrats and Republicans, he said. Lottery proceeds currently fund parks, bike trails and other outdoor recreation facilities.
It’s time to make the change, Becker said. “Why can’t we invest in our kids? When we put parks ahead of children, I’m embarrassed for us,” he said.
Becker, R-Fort Morgan, also is carrying a bill to correct a problem with the state’s concurrent enrollment policy that allows high school students to take college courses and earn college credit while they’re in high school.
As the law now stands, high school students can enroll in undergraduate college courses and receive college credit toward a degree. The program, which is offered in Becker’s district by Morgan Community College, allowed more than 20,000 students to take college courses in 2013-14, the last year for which data is available from the Colorado Department of Education.
The program has been wildly successful since its authorization in 2009, but problems are beginning to surface.
Becker said there are two issues to address. Rural schools can’t afford the courses, which have to be paid for by the districts, and larger colleges are now coming into rural areas and allowing students to take college classes from which credits aren’t being transferred as the law intended.
One last challenge Becker wants to take on this session is a bill that would tell the federal government “hands off” Colorado water rights. The issue: a requirement from the U.S. Forest Service that anyone leasing federal lands would have to agree to turn over their water rights.
This year will be the third time he, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, or both, have tried to push this bill through the General Assembly. Becker says it has a better chance of passing this year, in part because he’s obtained a Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. K.C. Becker, D-Boulder.
Sonnenberg, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, has promised his staff he wouldn’t sponsor as many bills as he did in 2015: 42, a modern-day record. But he still has big plans.
Top among his priorities for 2016 is implementing parts of the state water plan, a two-year project of the Hickenlooper administration, seeking to address a looming water shortage projected for 2050.
Sonnenberg has several bills in mind to help move the state water plan along: one that would streamline the permitting process for building new storage, and another that would expand storage in existing facilities. One bill would set up a pilot project to pump water back into underground aquifers, which would reduce evaporation. Another bill would fund dredging of shallow reservoirs, such as in Pueblo and Morgan County, to expand their water storage.
Sonnenberg hasn’t fully committed to carrying those bills, but he would likely be the first legislator to tackle the state water plan. Monday, Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, told reporters she didn’t expect to see legislation from Democrats on the water plan until next year.
Sonnenberg tried to get the permitting bill through the Interim Water Resources Review Committee last fall, but lost on a 5-5 tie, which he blamed on opposition from Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Both Sonnenberg and Becker plan to tackle the issue of conservation easements: when a landowner voluntarily agrees to conserve part of his or her land, to keep it from being developed, in exchange for tax benefits. The land cannot be used for any other purpose, either at the time of the donation or in the future.
The program has been in trouble for years amidst allegations of abuse, but it’s reached new levels, as Sonnenberg found out in a hearing last August. According to The Denver Post, a Sterling couple, Alan and Julia Gentz, donated 20 acres of land to Logan County 10 years ago, and are now facing a $708,000 tax bill from the Department of Revenue because the appraiser who valued their property didn’t have a valid license. The Gentzes aren’t alone, either. Sonnenberg’s hearing drew residents throughout northeastern Colorado who experienced similar problems.
“The state made a contract with the people of Colorado and then backed out of the contract and changed the rules,” Sonnenberg said. The bill is likely to carry a large price tag, likely a problem in a tight budget year. “But it’s never too early to do the right thing.”
Finally, Sonnenberg is holding one bill in his pocket as a warning to those who want to ban fracking, a bill he sponsored last year. Communities that ban fracking would lose the tax revenue they would normally expect from oil and gas operations. The oil and gas industry is already struggling, he said, and continued regulation and barriers will force those companies to take their business to other states.
The 2016 General Assembly begins official business Wednesday, Jan. 13. Hickenlooper will present his State of the State address the following day.
Photo credit: Loco Steve, Creative Commons, Flickr.