Measure carries out $373 cut per student

Senate committee passes school finance act 9-1

DENVER – School advocates were unimpressed with a new state budget deal that avoids part of the cuts that Gov. John Hickenlooper had proposed.

After Tuesday’s budget deal, legislators Thursday unveiled the annual school finance act, which implements a $250 million cut to public schools. Even its sponsor had harsh words for his own bill.

“It’s an absolute travesty that we’re not investing in our students,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

The Senate Appropriation Committee passed the school finance act, Senate Bill 230, on a 9-1 vote. It’s a crucial part of the budget-balancing plan the Senate will vote on today and Monday.

At 12 pages, this year’s school finance act is a third of its usual length.

“It is a very stripped-down, simple, straightforward bill that really just deals with the unfortunate reality of our inability to fund public education,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, chairman of the appropriations committee.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said he is working on a plan to make sure schools are funded by shifting the burden back to local taxpayers. The state government now picks up more than 60 percent of the cost of local schools, compared with around 40 percent two decades ago.

King also came up with the legal mechanism that let the state cut school funding in spite of Amendment 23, the voter-approved law that mandates increased budgets for schools.

Democrats hated the idea when King first revealed it a few years ago, and they still do. But they voted along with Republicans to make it a permanent feature of the school finance act on Thursday.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter adopted King’s idea last year, and no one challenged it in court. But teachers don’t want it to be permanent, either, said Karen Wick, a lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“It opens up the ability to cut school funding not only when times are bad, but when times are good,” Wick said.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, supported King’s original idea and likes the fact that it will become a permanent part of education funding at the Legislature.

“I think that will save the state from some very ill-conceived effects of Amendment 23, so this is an even better bill than I thought it was,” Harvey said.

The only “no” vote came from Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who is running a citizen campaign to increase taxes.

Steadman took aim at Hickenlooper’s oft-repeated phrase that Coloradans have “no appetite” for a tax increase.

“I have no qualms saying I have an appetite for a revenue change. I know many of my constituents do. And I hope when people see what we’re doing to our public schools with this bill, the general public will join us,” Steadman said.

The bill proposes a $5.19 billion budget for Colorado’s public schools, with nearly two-thirds coming from the state and most of the rest from local taxpayers. The falling budget and increasing enrollment translates to a $373 cut for each of Colorado’s 806,000 students. Colorado’s average spending per pupil would be $6,440.

jhanel@durango herald.com