DENVER – The Senate was thrown into chaos briefly Friday as rule books and copies of the Colorado Revised Statutes were thrown open to check procedures because of a ruling by a committee chairman.
The dispute arose because of a ruling on amendments to Senate Bill 296, which establishes the per pupil funding for school districts.
The amendments included one that would require school districts to equally fund charter schools on a per pupil basis instead of allowing the districts to distribute funding based on the needs of the schools in their jurisdiction.
The amendment was a carbon copy of SB 61, which has languished on the calendar in the House after passing the Senate.
Another amendment would have appropriated $16 million from a housing program for homeless people for schools.
In opposition, a division vote, which is an unrecorded head count, was called for by Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs. The entire Democratic Caucus stood against taking away local control from districts and were joined by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.
Committee Chairman Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, however, declared he was “not in doubt” of the vote and passed the amendments.
That caused an uproar from those who knew they had the votes to kill the insertion of SB 61 into the finance act.
Lawmakers from both sides rushed the front of the room to debate the ruling, and after several minutes Cooke withdrew it and took a roll call vote, which resulted in an 18-17 vote to defeat the amendments. Coram was the lone Republican voting against the amendments.
That was not the first time Coram has decisively voted against his party on legislation, and it has earned him increased regard from Democrats.
“I have the greatest amount of respect for Senator Coram,” Merrifield said.
The episode was only the beginning of debate on SB 296 as a number of other amendments were proposed, including one that renamed the K-12 “negative factor” as a “budget adjustment.”
The amendment was adopted but not before a debate on the merits and timing of the change.
“We just have three days left and we’re talking about a word… let’s get to the reality of the work that needs to be done,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora.
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Spring, proposed an amendment to make it easier for new schools and schools that undergo rapid growth to claim funding for new students.
Although it was adopted, the effort came under fire from Democrats because the only school affected would be Las Animas in Southeast Colorado, which Gardner represents a subsidiary of in his professional career as a lawyer.
Merrifield said it was a conflict of interest and Gardner should have recused himself.
Gardner disagreed and said the code of conduct supports him as the amendment does not single out his client, but aims to help any districts.
He attributed it to an incidental situation where his non-legislative life brushed against his senatorial one, which he said is not uncommon.
“Because we have a citizen legislature, we’re all going to have an occupation outside of that,” Gardner said.
SB 296 will receive a final vote on Monday before heading to the House where it must speed through the chamber in the waning days of the session.