Thursday, February 12, 2009

House Education Committee Kills Bill Creating Tax Deduction for Private School Tuition

A proposal to allow parents of private school students to take an annual state income tax deduction for up to about $1,250 of the tuition they pay was killed in a House committee Thursday.

HB 1195 died after legislative staff projected it could cost the state as much as $108 million in fiscal year 2009 and as much as about $163 million in fiscal year 2010.

Democratic members of the House Education Committee told the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, that his measure would effectively funnel public money to private schools and undermine rural school districts' financial stability by increasing the incentives for parents to pull" their kids out of local public schools.

But Lambert said preliminary research on his proposal shows that his bill would save money as an increasing number of parents choose private schools over public schools.

"If you have fewer students in the public schools, you also have less back fill from the state," Lambert said. "Whatever we raise in taxes could then be used for something else."

Lambert also said he thinks the existing system under which parents of private school students pay taxes to support public schools is unfair.

"The thing is, people who do not take advantage of the public schools, they still have the same tax liability," Lambert said. "They are being taxed whether or not they decide to participate. The question is whether that's fair."

The vote against the measure was 9-4.

Republican Tom Massey of Poncha Springs joined the committee's majority Democrats in opposition to Lambert's proposal, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Senate Says "Yes" To Bill Requiring New School Buses to Have Seat Belts

Students on the state's school buses may soon have to buckle their seat belts.

A bill passed by a Senate committee today mandates that new additions to Colorado's fleet of school buses would have to be equipped with seat belts.

SB 29, sponsored by Senate majority leader Brandon Shaffer of Longmont, cleared the Senate Transportation Committee with two GOP members joining the Democrats in support.

Shaffer secured committee approval of his bill after easing a provision that would have required buses purchased within the last five years to be retro-fitted with seat belts.

As amended, the bill applies to all buses purchased after June 30, 2010. On June 30, 2014 a requirement that all buses purchased after June 30, 2004 have seat belts installed in them would take effect.

The committee action came despite opposition to the bill from the Colorado Association of Secondary Schools and the Colorado Association of Elementary School Principals.

Kevin Schott, the principal of Basalt High School, told the committee that the bill would raise school district expenses and that the results could be a reduction in the number of available school bus routes and the capacity of each bus.

The committee also heard testimony from the mother of the last child to die in a school bus accident in Colorado.

Rose Swemby said that her son, Kevin, would likely have survived a 1989 crash in which several dozen other students were injured if the school bus in which he had been riding had been equipped with seat belts.

The measure would require school bus drivers to attend training in the use of safety belts and to instruct students riding on buses how to use the seat belts.

The GOP's Nancy Spence, a veteran Centennial legislator who is often a leading Republican voice on education issues, voted "no" on the bill.

SB 29 now heads to the Senate floor.

Kevin Swemby was 11 years old when he died in that accident.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Scheffel Replaces Kopp on Senate Education Committee

There has been a change in the GOP membership of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, has replaced Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, according to a report in Education News Colorado.

The change has apparently already taken effect.

Senate Committee OKs GOP Bill Terminating Business Personal Property Tax

The Democratic-controlled Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee approved Tuesday a bill that would eliminate the state's business personal property tax, a levy that is assessed on top of other property and income taxes.

SB 85, sponsored by freshman Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, was endorsed by Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, and won the approval of the committee on a 6-1 vote, with only Democrat Evie Hudak of Arvada opposed.

The personal property tax has been a favorite bogey of the state's business community for decades. Opponents have argued that it unnecessarily and unwisely impedes business investment. Prior efforts at repeal, whether in GOP-led legislatures or Democratic-controlled General Assemblies, have failed.

Scheffel's bill would phase out the tax over 20 years.

Nor is SB 85 the only tax repeal that has gained the endorsement of a Senate committee in the past week.

On Monday another Senate committee approved a bill by Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, that would repeal the tax businesses must pay on certain insurance premiums.

Charter School Bill Killed by Senate Committee

A bill that would have opened the door to several innovative ways of financing charter school construction was killed by a Senate committee Tuesday.

SB 155 was shot down on a 4-3 party-line vote despite the sponsor's acceptance of an amendment that removed controversial provisions that would have allowed metropolitan districts to build schools.

The Senate Local Government and Energy Committee shot down the measure proposed by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, after hearing testimony against it by Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards, Aurora Public Schools superintendent John Barry and Bruce Caughey of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

The metropolitan district provision of the bill would have allowed the organizations formed by developers to pay for subdivision infrastructure, which collect property taxes, to build charter schools on land donated by developers to school districts but which the districts do not want. The metropolitan districts would have been given permission to contract with charter school operators to run the schools.

King said his proposal was "innovative" and that it would help school districts avoid the need for new bonds to pay for necessary schools. King argued that some districts are approaching their bonding limits and cannot afford to build schools at a pace fast enough to keep up with rising population.

But Urschel told the committee that the state's school boards did not want to see their authority lessened and that state law already provides enough opportunities to build additional charter school facilities.

Barry said that opening the door to charter construction authority by entities not under the control of his district would compromise "long-term planning."

Two other bills affecting charter school construction, SB 89 and SB 176, are still being considered.

According to Education News Colorado,

The issue of funding charter school facilities will surface again Thursday, when the Senate Education Committee considers Senate Bill 09-089, and yet again on Feb. 18, when that panel hears Senate Bill 09-176.

SB 09-089 is a general rewrite of laws affecting the state Charter School Institute, which oversees charters that aren’t under the jurisdiction of individual district boards. The bill would exempt the institute from some state purchasing rules, allow the institute to approve “alternative school” charters anywhere in the state and change the charter funding formula, including putting some money into a charter construction fund.

While the bill killed Tuesday was sponsored only by King, the institute bill includes two Democratic sponsors, including Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, as House prime sponsor.

SB 09-176 addresses charter construction funding more directly, and it contains lots of provisions that will spark opposition. It would require school boards to give their charters advance notice of possible bond issues, remove a district’s power to review charters’ bond requests, basically require districts to include charter projects in bond issues and removes the current requirement that charter buildings revert to a district if a charter closes or can’t pay its debt.

Its sole sponsor right now is Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial. But Spence told EdNews Tuesday that Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, asked her to carry the bill. Groff, who represents an inner-city district, is a charter supporter who’s sometimes at odds with Democrats who hold more traditional views about education. Groff also sits on Senate Ed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

GOP's King Wants to Require State Employee Furloughs to Avoid Higher Ed Cuts

A west slope GOP lawmaker is proposing that the state try to avoid anticipated cuts in higher education spending by forcing state employees to take unpaid furloughs and using the money saved to fund the colleges.

According to a press release issued today by the House GOP caucus, King's bill would direct $5.6 million per day to the state's university system.

King's proposal has been introduced as HB 1221.

"Many private sector employees are making these same sacrifices in order to get their companies through these troubling times,” sponsoring Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said. “I am asking our state employees to make similar sacrifices in order to save some of the government services that Colorado families depend on from ending up on the chopping block.”

Democrats, however, may not be receptive to King's idea.

Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, says HB 1221 violates the established procedure of having the Joint Budget Committee determine how the state will close its budget shortfall.

"If that bill were to pass both the House and the Senate and be signed by the governor, and I think all three of those are great big 'ifs,' if would require all agencies to cut their budgets before presenting them to the JBC,” Labuda said.

The Denver Democrat, who is a member of the House committee that will hear the bill, also said that she thinks the public might be put at risk if all state employees are forced to take unpaid time off.

"In theory, I don’t know if I could support that because there are many, many state employees who are in positions that are necessary for health and safety," Labuda said. "It doesn’t specify that anybody is exempted and I wouldn’t want to see our hospitals have mandatory furloughs or are public safety folks to have mandatory furloughs. This bill is one size fits all for starters."

The bill would allocate required furlough days on the basis of employee salaries, with higher-paid public employees being required to take more time off than lower-paid employees. HB 1221 says that state employees make $30,000 or less per year would be required to take off one day per month, while those making $30,000-40,000 per year would have to take 1 1/2 days off per month. Employees who are paid more than $40,000 per year would have to stay away from the job two days each month.

The state is facing a budget shortfall of at least $300 million this fiscal year and more than $600 million for fiscal year 2009.

The bill, if enacted into law, would go into effect immediately.

House Clears Bill Requiring Employers to Give Leave for School Activities

The House gave final approval this morning to a measure that will require large, private sector employers to provide leave for employees to attend their childrens' school academic events.

HB 1057 allows parents to take not more than 18 hours of unpaid leave during an academic year to attend school meetings for their children. Leave is limited to six hours per month for businesses with 50 or more employees and can only be taken in increments of three hours or less.

Parents are required to provide employers with one week’s notice except in an emergency and employers may require that employees provide written verification of the reason for leave.

“Some parents simply can’t get enough time away from their jobs to help their children succeed,” sponsoring Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, said. “This bill makes it easier for parents to attend the important school meetings that are so critical to their child’s success in the classroom.”

The bill has been controversial, and Kerr succeeded in shepherding it through the House Education Committee only after reducing the amount of leave that would be made available and making sure the bill would not affect small businesses.

Nevertheless, business groups continue to oppose HB 1057.

The bill passed the House on final reading by a vote of 35-30. Democrat Kathleen Curry of Gunnison voted "no" along with every GOP member of the chamber.

It now moves to the Senate.

Suthers Announces Settlement With Countrywide

Attorney general John Suthers announced today that he has secured a commitment by the nation's largest mortgage lender to provide $6 million to help distressed homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The agreement, which settles a lawsuit alleging that Countrywide engaged in deceptive trade practices when it convinced borrowers to agree to loans that included low introductory rates that quickly rose and dramatically increased payments, was approved by a Denver District Court judge Feb. 3.

"Under the settlement agreement, Countrywide will also help borrowers who are in default or facing foreclosure to save their homes through fast-track loan modification of sub-prime or option-ARM loans, resulting in reduced mortgage payments," Suthers said. "The program offers a series of loan modifications, including lowering the interest rate as low as 3.5 percent for five years to make house payments more affordable. Alternatively, Countrywide can make loans interest-only for up to ten years."

The announcement this morning also said that about 6,800 Colorado homeowners are expected to benefit from it.

Suthers said the deal includes provisions that would require Countrywide to waive some late fees and pre-payment penalties worth at least $2.1 million.

"Borrowers that do not qualify for loan modification under the settlement, or who previously went into default and lost their homes to foreclosure after only a few payments, may be eligible to receive compensation under the settlement," Suthers said.

The money paid by Countrywide also includes $500,000 for the state's Division of Housing. It will be used to expand efforts by the Foreclosure Hotline to reach out to homeowners at risk of losing their homes.

Suthers said Countrywide has already begun contacting borrowers to determine if they are eligible for a loan modification under the settlement.

"The settlement agreement requires Countrywide to complete the modification for a borrower within 60 days after the borrower provides income information," Suthers said. "During this time, any foreclosure proceedings are suspended. In addition, Countrywide will write off late fees and waive prepayment penalties on modified loans."

The terms of the settlement required Countrywide to establish a special fund of an additional $1.2 million to help homeowners affected by the practices alleged in the complaint to relocate. There is also a separate fund of approximately $4.4 million that is to be used to pay about 1,180 Colorado homeowners who could make six or fewer payments before they could no longer afford their loans.