This year lawmakers in the Colorado General Assembly passed a total of 441 bills, 92 percent of which moved through the legislature with bipartisan support.
But there also were a number of bills that were highly divisive and required Colorado’s legislators to debate early into the morning about gun control, energy regulation and oversight, and public school financing.
On Tuesday, House District 61 Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, provided a legislative update to members of the Summit School District Board of Education.
Hamner, a former Summit School District superintendent and chairperson of the House Education committee, explained what changes the school district could see if Senate Bill 13-213, the Future School Finance Act, is approved in November by Colorado voters.
Hamner was the primary House sponsor of the Act, which aims to increase taxpayer contributions to K-12 funding by more than $1 billion. The tax increase requires voter approval in accordance with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and will be presented in November to Colorado residents in the form of a ballot question.
SB13-213 was arguably the most hotly contested bill during the legislative session, Hamner said, and was passed on party line votes. Although she is hopeful state Republicans will join their colleagues from across the aisle, Hamner is fearful the parties could remain divided as lawmakers campaign for public support.
“I find it very troubling because not one Republican (in the House or Senate) voted for the Future School Finance Act,” Hamner said. “I’m worried we’re in for a divisive campaign going into November.”
Hamner, as well as many educators, was hopeful the Colorado Supreme Court would solve the state’s problems with public school financing when it ruled in Lobato v. The State of Colorado.
In 2005, a group called Children’s Voices filed suit against the state on behalf of 14 rural school districts in the San Luis Valley. They claimed state educational funding, which lags behind the national per pupil average by about $2,000, fails to provide a “thorough and uniform” education required by the state Constitution.
Last month the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s finding that state school financing violates the Colorado Constitution.
The Lobato decision could play a pivotal role in the minds of Colorado voters in November because the Future School Finance Act does not directly address the shortfall in base, per-pupil funding.
However, the bill does provide for increased funding based on need, Hamner said, such as in rural school districts where it is more difficult to pass a voter-approved mill levy or in districts with high volumes of English Language Learners, as in the Denver School District.
“Will the Lobato decision work for or against us on the ballot question in November?” Hamner said. “It’s hard to predict, but I think there are enough people who side on the ‘no.’”
A question can appear on a ballot in one of two ways: through a referendum passed by the legislature or as a citizen’s initiative. Lawmakers went with the latter and the state has received countless proposals from the public on what the question should say.
Although the question still needs to be tweaked, Hamner said the bill must navigate over another unique hurdle if it is to be approved by voters in November. As it stands, Hamner thinks the Future School Finance Act will appear in second position on the ballot, below another Amendment 64-related question about a tax structure on recreational marijuana sales.
Paraphrasing, Hamner said the Amendment 64 questions asks if voters would approve a tax on recreational marijuana sales if funds would be allocated to the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today initiative, a matching grant program designed to assist communities with capital construction projects for schools.
If voters are at all inclined to support a tax for public school financing, Hamner thinks more people will support a tax on recreational marijuana sales.
“I’m worried people will vote ‘yes’ on that (Amendment 64) question because I think a lot of people would be inclined to (regardless of marijuana use),” Hamner said. “Then I think they’ll vote ‘no’ on our question because they’ll think they have done their duty for Colorado’s schools.”
Although voter approval on SB13-213 is in doubt Hamner said state Democrats wrote the bill to be valid for five years, providing additional opportunities to re-present their case to the public if it does fail in November.