LEGISLATIVE PREVIEW: Colorado’s Capitol offense, and defense in 2018

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AURORA | After last year’s virtual lawmaking stalemate, some Aurora lawmakers are optimistic about the 2018 legislative session.

“More than anything, I think a focus on Colorado is going to have to be what we (do) and not pay attention to the different messages and the partisan politics that has a tendency to run rampant in an election year,” said Aurora Democrat Sen. Nancy Todd. “Citizens are looking for solutions and help, not partisanship.”

Todd, however, doesn’t speak for everyone at the Capitol as the Colorado General Assembly prepares to embark on it’s 120-day session.

Others don’t see much getting done with elections looming, and several lawmakers will be putting up controversial bills that play to their base but have no chance in making it to the governor’s desk.

“Here’s what to expect: a tremendous bunch of showboating, and nothing getting done,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Denver-based libertarian Independence Institute.

While inside and out of the Capitol there’s a debate about how effective state lawmakers will be during an election year, no one is arguing what topics will take up the most attention during the sprint to the finish line starting Jan. 10. The Sentinel talked with lawmakers, lobbyists and pundits on some of the biggest issues facing lawmakers for the 2018 Legislature.

Schools of thought 

The issue of teacher shortages in school districts across the state has been a major topic among advocacy groups, lawmakers and local governments in recent years. The problem became even more of a focus this fall with the release of a joint report by the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Higher Education on the serious teacher shortage the state faces.

The report outlines multiple factors that have both driven teachers from the classroom and decreased the number of potential teacher candidates from the pipeline, including the lack of respect from the public for the profession and a burdensome bureaucratic system. But the underlying issue facing the state’s education system comes down to one thing. Money.

Colorado’s K12 education system is more than $2,600 under the national average for per-pupil funding and dead last when it comes to offering teachers comparable pay to non-teachers with a similar education and hours worked.

“I will say what is the one thing that will be hardest for us to do, and that is to get our teachers to the cost of living wage,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of CDHE, during a round-table discussion on the plan on Dec 7. “If 97 percent of (rural) districts are not paying teachers a living wage, it’s going to be hard for me to get people more interested, to get more people retained, to get more students on fire for being teachers… It always comes back to this challenge of competing financial interest.”

Finding more money for K12 and higher education is an issue that won’t be made easier with an election looming in November, which tends to result in bills focused less on compromise and more on firing up each party’s base.

Aurora Democratic Rep. Janet Buckner said the Governor’s Education Leadership Commission, of which she is a member, is also looking at solutions for the teacher shortage. While a mainstay in education conversations, this year Buckner said she’s also making the nursing shortage and prescription drug cost transparency top priorities.

Outside groups such as the Public Education and Business Coalition are set to make sure lawmakers don’t leave the Gold Dome in May without some movement for teachers.

Sue Sava, chief policy officer for the PEBC, said her group is focused on pushing lawmakers for more funding for the K12 and higher education systems. Just like transportation funding, putting more money into schools is one of the biggest economic development challenges Colorado is faced with for the foreseeable future.

“If we don’t appropriately support our education system, we will not produce the skilled workforce that our economic development will demand. Who will design and implement our transportation system if we’re not educating the next generation?” Sava said. “Education funding is the workforce development of our time.”

While the teacher shortage will be at the forefront of the education conversation, lawmakers already have plans to take on school-related topics.

Both Aurora Sens. Rhonda Fields and Todd, Democrats, have bullying-related legislation near the top of their lists. Fields cited the recent suicide of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, an Aurora fifth grader at Sunrise Elementary School, as a reason why the issue is so important.

Davis’ troubles “fell through the cracks,” Fields said of the girl, whose parents said she was bullied at school and online. “So I want to look at how we create safer environments so kids can tell someone that they have a fear of going to school or they’re being bullied.

“If you don’t show up for school, you can’t learn, and your grades slip. My thinking is what we can do to strengthen our policies and processes and close that gap and another kid doesn’t feel that desperate to harm themselves.”

The lawmaker said she wants to make sure every school has requirements in place so their personnel can intervene, respond and address bullying that takes place. Likewise, Todd said she plans to introduce legislation that addresses training for school staff and teachers so they’re able to identify signs of suicide in students.

Both legislators said they feel the bills will be well received by both parties. Todd said she has rural Republican lawmakers on board with her legislation, as they see a higher percentage of suicides in their districts.

Democratic Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet is also set to bring back one of her bills from last session to lower the age students can go speak to a school counselor without parental notification from 15 to 12. While it initially had Republican support in 2016, that bill was sent to the Republican-controlled Senate “kill committee.”

The new bill, Michaelson Jenet said, will include funding for a campaign to promote a mental health text line in Colorado and increase access to suicide awareness and prevention education to groups that may not have access to those type of free programs, like camp counselors, clergy member and recreation center employees.

Michaelson Jenet also plans on putting forward bills in the 2018 session to increase training for school and daycare employees to recognize the signs of sexual assault in children six years old and younger.

In the cafeteria, Fields said her top priority is a bill that expands the reduced lunch program beyond K-5 students — which is the case in many school districts across the state. Once a student moves onto the sixth grade they may still financially qualify for reduced lunch prices, but don’t get the meal for 40 cents because the program isn’t offered to those students.

It will take some money, just under $1 million, according to Fields. If passed, she said the bill would impact around 2 million students in Colorado who fall between the sixth and twelfth grade and qualify for reduced lunch.

The road to something better 

What was thought to be a simple statewide transportation fix last year ended up being a failure of a special legislative session when lawmakers met to repair a marijuana tax error that resulted in several programs across the state losing some funding.

Democrats sponsored two bills that ended in defeat in the Republican-controlled Senate after it was discovered a bill passed in the 2017 session which increased payments to schools and hospitals left out funding for the Regional Transportation District and several arts and culture agencies. The passed bill eliminated a 2.9 percent tax on recreational marijuana, but increased the special sales tax on marijuana from 10 percent to 15 percent.

And while both sides of the aisle agreed the funding was mistakenly left out, neither could come to an agreement on how to solve the problem when Gov. John Hickenlooper called lawmakers back to the Capitol. Republicans said the proposed legislative fix to the bill went against the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Lawmakers are expected to revisit the issue this session, but Caldara of the Independence Institute said it’s expected Republicans will oppose anything on the issue that would increase taxes.

“This budgetary neglect of our road and bridge funding has been going on for over a decade,” said Centennial Republican Sen. Jack Tate. “In the last session, we passed legislation to finance over $1.5 billion in transportation projects – only a portion of CDOT’s $9 billion backlog of road and bridge improvements. We have the capability in the next session to allocate general fund monies to these additional needs.”

Dealing with the backlog of transportation issues is key not just for daily commuters but for keeping the state’s economic path moving in the right direction, said Sandra Hagen Solin, spokeswoman for Fix Colorado Roads, an effort from economic development groups and chambers of commerce from across the state.

“The challenge of transportation in Colorado continues to persist and, if anything, continues to grow given the growth occurring throughout the state,” Solin said. “Transportation should be and is a bipartisan issue. Our desire is to bridge the differences that exist between the parties on the important philosophical approaches on transportation. We think we can get there primarily because the problem isn’t going away.”

The goal for the 2018 session is to get the legislature to put a transportation bond issue on the November ballot, Solin said, that uses at bare minimum existing general fund dollars and possibly new revenues to fund the billions in unaddressed projects. The new federal tax bill passed by Republicans at the end of 2017 eliminates the ability for Coloradans to deduct state and local taxes from their federal taxes, which Solin said could conservatively add $200 million to the state budget.

This week, Gov. John Hickenlooper submitted amendments to the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets, including allocating $148.2 million to transportation.

“Something has to be done. We can’t just point fingers at the other party,” Solin said.

Kevin Bommer, Colorado Municipal League’s deputy director, said finding a solution that addressed all of the state’s transportation woes, including local roads in rural areas of the state, was critical. But CML was concerned that simply using state revenue under the TABOR cap for transportation bonds would be unsustainable in the long term. Once the state reaches the TABOR cap, there will be a scramble to find unrestricted money in the budget to pay for the bond program.

“The cap is the cap and we’ll get to it at some point,” Bommer said. “The only fungible source of revenue the state will be left to monkey with is severance tax revenue, which goes to local governments, which is a significant concern for energy impacted communities … How do we plan for future spending because raiding those funds cannot be part of that plan.”

The price of a place to stay

Even though construction defect reform made its way through the Legislature last year, affordable housing is still a concern for Front Range lawmakers and is expected to remain a focal point. In Aurora, the average rent in 2016 was 3 percent higher than the previous year, according to caferent.com, and the cost of a new home, on average, is just more than $500,000.

Democratic Rep. Dominique Jackson is set to bring forward at least three bills dealing with housing, including giving renters more rights and Rep. Mike Weissman plans to bring bills forward to reform homeowner associations, increase access to affordable housing and give consumers more power to avoid arbitration.

Affordable housing is an issue that hits close to home for Jackson who spent part of her youth homeless.

“I believe that having access to safe and attainable housing is the cornerstone to becoming self sufficient,” Jackson said. “It’s getting harder and harder and harder for working families to be able to access both that safe and attainable housing throughout our state.”

Affordable housing will be one of the biggest focuses for the liberal-leaning nonprofit Colorado Center on Law and Policy, said Claire Levy, the group’s executive director. CCLP is supporting measures to cut state sales tax on new manufactured homes, which are also charged property tax by the state, and one that would direct Colorado to use its unclaimed property trust fund to invest directly into affordable housing over a five-year period.

“We’ve been trying for several years to increase the state’s investment in affordable housing,” Levy said. “Part of the (housing) problem is supply and demand but a part of it is how expensive it is to construct housing with rising land and labor costs.”