Colorado House District 61 Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, was in Summit County this week to announce her re-election campaign, and the issues surrounding public school funding weren’t far from the mind of the former Summit School District superintendent.
Hamner is seeking her third term and spent the last two years serving as chairwoman of the House Education Committee. She squares off in November against Republican Debra Irvine and Libertarian Mac Trench.
On Thursday, July 3, Hamner discussed some of the issues facing public school funding since the demise last November of Amendment 66, highlights from the last legislative session and her plans to keep chopping away at the “negative factor.”
The negative factor only became a topic of conversation in the years following the recession, but it really dates back to 2000, when Colorado voters passed Amendment 23, Hamner said. Amendment 23 requires the General Assembly to provide specific increases in public school funding each year. Notably, public school funding is supposed to increase annually with the rate of inflation plus 1 percent.
But when the economy collapsed in 2008, the General Assembly could no longer meet that obligation. The negative factor therefore refers to the money school districts think they are owed, Hamner said.
Amendment 66 would have pumped $1 billion into public school coffers and eliminated the negative factor, among other goals, had it been passed last year.
“When Amendment 66 died, that’s really when my session started,” Hamner said.
Despite Amendment 66’s failure, Hamner and her colleagues in the House and Senate were able to make significant strides last session to increase public school funding, thanks in part to a recovering economy that boosted the overall state budget.
Hamner cited two bills she sponsored, including the Student Success Act and an amendment to the Public School Finance Act of 1994, that collectively reduced the negative factor by $152 million and added $500 million in public school funding, raising base per-pupil funding by $400 to $6,121 per student.
The bills also added $20 million annually for early-literacy programs, increased funding for capital construction projects at charter schools, added 5,000 slots to early-childhood education programs and allocated $25.5 million for English Language Learners programs.
Despite the positive increases, Hamner said there’s more work to be done.
“We really need to address per-pupil funding in this state,” Hamner said. “Colorado is among the bottom when compared to other states in the country.”
While meeting with local voters this week in Summit County, Hamner said one of the issues she will focus on during the next session — if re-elected — is amending the state’s testing requirements. Each school district has its own requirements, Hamner said, in addition to state and federal standards.
“Parents think it’s too much,” she said. “They’re concerned teachers are spending so much time meeting these testing requirements that there isn’t any time left over to teach.”
In addition to education, Hamner pledged to advocate for environmental issues, such as water, and economic issues, like tourism and agriculture, which she thinks are top of mind among voters in the 61st District, which encompasses parts of Summit, Lake, Pitkin, Delta and Gunnison counties.
The upcoming session may be one of the most difficult in recent memory. With so many seats up for grabs and so many tight races, pundits are predicting that whichever party wins, it will be by the slimmest of majorities in both houses.
Hamner, however, said that’s a comfortable role.
When she was appointed to serve in 2010, the Democrats were in the minority by one vote. Hamner was able to push legislation through nonetheless, she said, by partnering with colleagues from across the aisle. Even serving with a majority in her second term, Hamner said she always seeks out a Republican to be a primary co-sponsor on all of her bills.
“I think that’s what the district and what the state wants to see,” Hamner said. “Nobody wants to see us gridlocked and fighting. If the House flips, I would have to step down as the chair of the education committee and that would be really disappointing for me. But, I know how to work with people when I’m in the minority. I’ve done it before.”
“We really need to address per-pupil funding in this state. Colorado is among the bottom when compared to other states in the country.”