Friday, March 20, 2009

Senate Education Committee Says “No” to School District Financial Accountability Bill

A landmark bill that would have required the state's public school districts to tell the public how they spend taxpayer dollars was killed in the House Education Committee Thursday.

SB 57, which originally would have required all of the state's school districts to post a searchable database of expenditures online, was watered down in the Senate to apply only to districts with existing websites and to permit disclosure in the form of spreadsheets.

Nevertheless, lobbyists for the state's education establishment, along with several district superintendents, objected to the cost and effort the disclosure mandate would have imposed.

Jane Urschel, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the members of her organization were not opposed to the measure but were concerned about its cost given uncertainty about existing and future budgets.

"Right now, it came down to a choice," Urschel said. "Districts don't know how much they have for this year, 08-09. They've been promised a certain amount of money, but here we are this far along in the fiscal year and the state is saying, we're probably going to have to cut your budget.

""They don't know what next year's budget looks like. We don't even have a school finance act yet, and here they are having to plan next year's budget."

Urschel also said she thought the bill reflected a simplistic view of school district finances because it assumed that simple technology could be used to publicize budgets that, in some cases, run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It's not as simple as it was made to sound," Urschel said. "In talking to people who do know these technologies, the idea that you can get a Quicken and apply it to a school district budget is absurd."

She also said that proponents had failed to assure that the bill would allow for disclosure of the context of particular expenditures.

"It's not enough to put the check stubs up," Urschel said. "There has to be some context."

Urschel did not explain why a spreadsheet or accounting program suitable for a school district's finances could not accommodate brief explanations of the purposes of particular expenditures.

A spokesperson for the bill's leading proponent, Golden-based Independence Institute, disputed the notion that the costs of compliance with SB 57 would have been a substantial burden for school districts.

"At the point where the bill was amended to, as considered by the House committee yesterday, it would have essentially required something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or Quickbooks accounting data to be uploaded to the website, which in itself would not have cost any additional money," Ben DeGrow said.

DeGrow also pointed to some studies allegedly showing that the personnel burdens a disclosure mandate would impose on school districts are minimal because district office staff receive fewer calls about receipts and expenses when that information is available online.

Some school districts make some financial information available under current law, but there is no requirement that they disclose all expenditures.

The bill was rejected by the committee on an 8-5 vote, with all of Democrats voting "no" and all Republicans voting "yes."

Education Committee Kills Bus Seat Belt Mandate

A bill that would have required school buses in the state to be equipped with school buses died in the House Education Committee Thursday.

SB 29 was killed on a unanimous vote despite an amendment added in the Senate that removed a provision requiring the retro-fitting of existing buses.

Lobbyists for the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives waged a determined fight against the bill, which they believe would have imposed an unjustified financial burden on the state's school districts.

Under current law the districts are not required to outfit buses with safety restraints. There has been at least one death of a Colorado child due to an absence of seat belts on buses in the last 20 years.

The committee rejected the bill despite pleas from the state's medical community to afford children some protection from the risk of accidents while traveling Colorado roads on school buses.

SB 29 had been sponsored by Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Rep. Liane "Buffie" McFadyen, D-Pueblo West.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Kefalas Bill To Authorize Study of Single-Payer Health Care System in State Gets Committee Exam Today

A bill that would create a privately-funded review commission to study how a publicly-funded and privately-managed single-payer health system would work in Colorado was approved this evening by a House committee.

HB 1273, which is sponsored by Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, would not create a single-payer health system. The measure does, however, include a schedule under which the legislature would consider whether to create such a delivery system in the state.

“Our objective is to create a more streamlined system that focuses on better-value, quality health care,” Kefalas said. “Almost 800,000 folks in Colorado are uninsured. We have to do better. The Health Care Authority will look for 21st century solutions. Right now, our medical industry is drowning in paperwork. Energy and resources are being wasted on inefficiencies when they ought to be directed toward building a healthy, insured Colorado workforce.”

If the bill becomes law, and the study commission it creates is formed, adequately financed, and prepares its report on time, the General Assembly would take up the question of establishing a single-payer health care system in 2011.

The commission would be made up of 23 members. It would explore how a single-payer system not managed or controlled by the state government would work and how, if the state is not paying for health care services on behalf of Colorado residents, the system could be financed.

The proposed Colorado Health Care Authority would have to raise funds privately to pay for its work. If enough funds were not raised by July 1, 2011, the work of the commission would end.

The cost of the commission's work is estimated to be about $1.4 million.

A commission established in 2007 by Gov. Bill Ritter, which also studied health care delivery in the state, said that a single-payer health care system merited further study but did not include it in a list of recommendations for reform Because members concluded existing federal law does not permit a state to adopt a single-payer delivery system.

A report issued by the Colorado Health Institute in 2006 said that 17 percent of the state's residents do not have health insurance.

The House Business Affairs & Labor Committee sent the bill to the House Appropriations Committee on a 5-4 vote.

With the exceptions of Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, and Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, who were absent, all of the committee's Democrats supported the bill and all of the panel's GOP members opposed it.

Oil & Gas Rules Start Senate Review Process Today

The new regulations affecting the state's oil and gas industry will be considered by a legislative committee today as the Senate starts its review of them.

The rules, which were finalized by the Oil & Gas Conservation Commission under a directive of last year's legislature, have already cleared the House.

They are being considered along with a variety of other new rules and regulations issued by state agencies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

House Says "Yes" To Bill Requiring Colorado Presidential Electors to Vote For Winner of National Popular Vote

A bill that would require Colorado's presidential electors to cast their votes in the Electoral College in favor of the candidate who won the national popular vote, even if that candidate did not win the most votes in Colorado, gained final approval in the House today.

HB 1299 was approved, 34-29, with three Democrats joining Republicans in opposition.

Proponents of the bill, led by sponsor Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, say it is necessary to ensure that the people in the state who voted for the national popular vote winner have their votes counted.

But opponents say the shift would mean that presidential candidates pay attention only to heavily-populated states, where most of the popular vote needed to win would be likely to be found.

If cleared by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter, HB 1299 would make Colorado the fifth state to join an interstate compact in which member states agree to cast Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey, which together account for 50 electoral votes, are the existing members of the compact.

The compact would go into effect when states with a total of 270 electoral votes - a majority of the Electoral College - agree to join.

Colorado has nine electoral votes.

The General Assembly has debated similar measures in three of the last four sessions.

SB 228 Heads to House

The bill that would repeal the state's general fund growth limit is on the way to the House of Representatives after gaining final approval in the Senate this morning.

SB 228, which would remove the 1991 Arveschoug-Bird law from the state's statute books, was approved 21-14 after senators rejected an effort by Republicans to send the measure to the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

Under current law the state's general fund can increase to the lower of six percent over the previous year or to five percent of the state's personal income. Any tax revenues the state generates in excess of that is dedicated to transportation and capital construction projects. The 1991 statute does not affect the amount of revenue reaching state coffers.

One of the impacts of the law has been a "ratchet-down" of the state's general fund, which pays for K-12 and higher education, human services, corrections, and state agencies, among other things, when economic conditions force state tax receipts down.

GOP critics of the legislation say it violates the 1992 Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which includes a provision specifying that spending limits can be changed only by a vote of the state's electorate.

But Democrats, along with Republican supporters Sen. Al White of Hayden and Rep. Don Marostica of Loveland, point to a legal opinion by former state supreme court justice Jean Dubofsky that says the Arveschoug-Bird law only allocates existing revenues and does not actually limit the total amount of money the state may spend in a given year.

SB 228 must clear the House before heading to the governor's office. Gov. Bill Ritter has not publicly said whether he would sign the measure.

Supreme Court Upholds Mill Levy Freeze

A controversial law that froze mill levies in almost all of the state's 178 public school districts, which allowed the districts to retain about $117 million in property tax revenues that would otherwise have been refunded to taxpayers, was upheld Monday by the state supreme court.

In a 6-1 decision the justices ruled that the 2007 statute, which froze mill levies only in those school districts in which residents had already voted to exempt the district from the revenue limits imposed by the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, did not contradict TABOR.

The court said that school districts are the government bodies that are assessing the property tax levies at issue, that no second election allowing use of the revenue gained as a result of the first public decision to exempt the districts from TABOR's revenue limits was necessary, and that in any case the mill levy freeze did not amount to a tax increase.

Gov. Bill Ritter welcomed the decision as an affirmation of the Democratic General Assembly's determination to reverse the impacts of a 1994 change to the state's School Finance Act, which limited the amount of money school districts could spend on local schools and raised the percentage of public school budgets paid for by the state.

“The real winners today are Colorado’s children, families and schools," Ritter said. "We took up this fight two years ago because it was the right thing to do for the right reasons: We were leading Colorado forward by removing an obstacle that hurt students, families and this state’s future."

The 1994 change to the School Finance Act forced mill levies downward in school districts with rising property values. As a result, and in order to maintain funding stability, the state's contribution to many school districts' budgets rose.

HB 07-1099 did not have the effect of raising any school district mill levies. The law simply told the districts that, if the voters within their boundaries had agreed to "de-BRUCE," or exempt the district from TABOR revenue limits, that existing mill levies could remain in place even if the revenue they produced rose. The 2007 statute also did not change the statewide maximum mill levy of 27 mills.

The amount of revenue a property tax assessed on a particular parcel of real estate generates for a taxing authority such as a school district is determined by multiplying three factors: the property value, the assessment rate and the mill levy.

House speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, said the legislature's majority considered constitutional objections to the law when it was considered in 2007 and had been confident that TABOR posed no obstacles to it.

"We knew this would pass constitutional muster or we wouldn’t have done it," Carroll said. "The legislation simply stabilizes funding for our kids’ schools so they can get the quality of education they deserve."

Republican critics of the decision, and of the 2007 law, said the supreme court's action was driven by partisan sympathy for the Democratic party.

“It’s fitting that the most partisan court in the land rubber stamped the governor’s property tax increase on exactly the same day Senate Democrats are poised to repeal Colorado’s landmark spending limits, and exactly two weeks after the Governor signed the largest increase in car taxes in a generation," Senate minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said. "With loyalist Democrats in charge of the Governor’s mansion, the state House, the state Senate, and the Supreme Court, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights is on life support and the principle of fiscal restraint is in full retreat."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rep. Anne McGihon to Leave Legislature Later This Month

Veteran Denver Democrat Anne McGihon has resigned from the House of Representatives.

McGihon, who is in her fourth and last term as a state representative, announced today that the demands of a new position with a national law firm require her to leave public service.

Her resignation will be effective March 27.

McGihon is the chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. She has been a leading voice in efforts to reform health care in Colorado and, this session, has helped drive House approval of a package of state agency regulations including controversial new rules affecting oil and gas drillers on the Western Slope.

In addition to her law degree, McGihon holds a masters degree in social work. She will join Ackerman Senterfitt, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. and Denver, to engage in a law and legislative advocacy practice focused on health care matters.

A District 3 Democratic vacancy committee will appoint a replacement to serve until January 2011.

McGihon herself was first appointed to the House by a vacancy committee in 2003.