Following the first session of the 71st General Assembly, House District 61 Rep. Millie Hamner and District 5 Senator Kerry Donovan headed to the North Fork Valley for a town meeting at Wisehart Springs in Paonia.
Rep. Hamner, vice chair of the joint Budget Committee, said the session resulted in "a lot of huge successes." Early in the session, Gov. John Hickenlooper indicated major reductions in funding for schools, senior property tax exemptions, and other cuts that, "at the end of the day, we didn't have to make."
Under Senate Bill 267, the bipartisan "Sustainability of Rural Colorado" bill, higher education received an additional $20.5 million to help keep tuition affordable, said Hamner, a former educator. Public schools will also see increase in per student funding of $242, "which was huge."
Also included in SB-267 in an additional $30 million for rural schools. "Delta schools will benefit as a result of this extra $30 million, on top of the $242 per student," said Hamner.
The controversial PARC assessments, which Hamner described as "very controversial," were also eliminated under passage of HB 1181, concerning state assessments for ninth-grade students.
Legislators also provided funding for more public school health professionals. They also reached "an incredible compromise on charter school funding" at the last minute, which was a sticking point throughout the session, said Hamner. "Most of the school districts were very pleased with how this ended up."
Hamner and Donovan also co-sponsored HB-1258 with Dist. 54 Rep. Yeulin Willett and District 6 Sen. Don Coram, to change the name of Delta-Montrose Technical College to "Technical College of the Rockies."
A bill co-sponsored by Hamner allows students proficient in English and at least one foreign language at the time of graduation to receive a seal of bi-literacy on their high school transcripts was passed. It authorizes school districts or charter schools in which the student is enrolled to decide whether students in grades K-3 will take assessments in English or in their native language.
Perhaps one of the biggest successes, said Hamner, is a compromise on the highly controversial hospital reimbursement fees. Under passage of SB-256, $264 million for the state's hospitals was cut. Hospitals were also looking at losing an equal amount in federal funding to help cover uninsured patients and refund Medicaid costs.
Again, SB-267 came through, restoring funding to hospitals by enterprising the provider fee, thereby exempting it from TABOR -- the Taxpayer Bill of Rights -- spending limits. While the fee doesn't go toward the state budget, it does count toward the state's revenue caps under TABOR, explained Hamner. "We're so close to the cap." Had SB-267 not passed, the state would have to issue $264 million in taxpayer refunds from the budget, and balanced the budget on cuts to transportation, education and public safety.
Hamner called the bill "a very bi-partisan effort... that came to the rescue at the final hour." Now rural hospitals like Delta County Memorial "can breathe a sigh of relief," and legislators have some wiggle room for the foreseeable future.
The state's property tax exemption program for senior citizens will be funded through 2018. A compromise was reached requiring that tax rebates to seniors count toward the state's revenue cap under TABOR. Unfortunately, said Hamner, because that rebate is about $150 million annually, it offsets the almost $200 million in TABOR cap reductions that was also approved.
Donovan saw two bills related to broadband fail, but found bipartisan support on a budget amendment for $9.5 million to help fund rural broadband projects. "This is a complex issue," said Donovan. "Getting things done through the budget is not common, so this was really a huge, huge win."
Another bill affecting Delta County, HB17-1321, was lost. Also known as the "Parks and Wildlife Financial Sustainability" bill, it would have created a funding mechanism for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Aquatic Nuisance Species program.
Colorado is viewed as a champion in fighting invasive species because it's one of the few states that has prevented them from grabbing hold, said Donovan. "It would be a shame if we move backwards ... on this front."
A bill to extend a fallowing and leasing pilot program administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board also passed. This allows the practice of fallowing arable land and leasing temporary rights to others.
The program, said Donovan, was started a couple of years ago in an attempt to get Colorado's farmers and ranchers to be conservationists when Colorado law and the "use it or lose it" mentality don't really allow for it. "How do you tell ranchers there is a way to conserve water and put more back into the system?" asked Donovan. This bill extended and expanded the program to get more people to participate, and to find out if it is a good way to conserve water.
Other disappointments, said the lawmakers, included the loss of a bill to fund full-day kindergarten programs. Donovan was prime sponsor of SB-022, the Rural Economic Advancement of Colorado Towns, which was also lost. The bill would have provided economic assistance for rural communities that have lost jobs due to economic events.
Gov. Hickenlooper decided last week against calling the legislature back into session to deal with some loose ends, including funding for infrastructure projects. There were four main areas of disappointments, including a loss of funding for the Colorado Energy Office, said Hamner. "I think we'll be the only state in the nation that doesn't have a funded energy office."
Pointing to the condition of Highway 133, legislators noted that no compromises were reached on transportation infrastructure funding. In addition, and despite bipartisan support, a package dealing with the affordability of health insurance didn't make it through the Senate.