The bill named after a student who died in a school shooting and that would change the liability of school districts for such tragedies won initial floor approval in the Colorado House late Thursday night.
And even later in the evening, the House also gave preliminary approval to a complicated proposal that would allow the state to sell bonds to help shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.
A few hours earlier, a House committee passed a just-introduced measure that promises some relief for K-12 and higher education funding in the future. But the measure faces some big hurdles in the 2015 session’s closing days.
“Claire Davis Act” moves quickly
Senate Bill 15-213, named in honor of Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis, who was killed in a December 2013 shooting, received preliminary House floor approval after an emotional debate.
Several House Republicans raised questions about the bill. Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, proposed an amendment that would have set a higher liability standard for districts than the bill proposes. That failed on a 26-38 vote.
“I am more fearful of this bill than I am of PARCC or Common Core,” said Willett, a lawyer.
But a speech by Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, drew the most attention. Wilson, a retired rural superintendent, said, “You can’t legislate safety folks, you just can’t do it.” His voice choking up, Wilson said, “Weigh your vote carefully.”
Just hours earlier the bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-3 vote. The centerpiece of that hearing was testimony from Claire’s parents, Michael and Desiree Davis.
“If this bill becomes law, school districts will have a new responsibility. They will be responsible for protecting kids from foreseeable harm,” Michael Davis said. “A vote in favor sends a clear message to public education entities that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
“I am here on behalf of my daughter, Claire,” said Desiree Davis. “These bills are not for us, they are for the next family.” (A companion measure would create a study committee on school violence and youth mental health.)
The main elements of the bill would allow districts and charter schools to be held liable if they don’t use “reasonable care” in protecting students, faculty or staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence – murder, first-degree assault and sexual assault — that lead to serious bodily injury or death. Damage caps would be set at $350,000 for individuals and $900,000 in cases of multiple victims.
School districts have been nervous about the bill since it was introduced but have had to be careful in lobbying, given that the bill is sponsored by bipartisan leaders in both houses.
But amendments along the way have softened the measure noticeably. A key change gives districts two years to implement new safety policies before they could be held liable for incidents. And individual teachers would be protected from liability. (See this story for more details on the bill.)
“Those amendments have made it a better bill,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and a prime sponsor.
A related measure, House Bill 15-1273, got final House floor approval on 64-0 vote Thursday morning and heads to the Senate. The bill is designed to improve statewide reporting of violent incidents at schools, a system that was criticized in the wake of Claire Davis’ death. Among other things, the bill would require marijuana-related incidents and sexual assaults to be reported separately. They’re now lumped into other categories. (Get more details in this legislative staff summary.)
Fast-track pension bill moving ahead
The other big education-related issue debated during the House’s late-night session was House Bill 15-1388, a complex plan for the state to sell bonds to help reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.
Proceeds from bond sales would be deposited in PERA’s state and schools trust funds, both beefing them up and giving the pension system more money to invest.
The bill received preliminary approval after 11 p.m. following a relatively short debate.
The bill was introduced only late Tuesday and approved by the House Finance Committee on Wednesday.
The plan has the backing of the Hickenlooper administration, GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the PERA board and most school districts. It also has bipartisan sponsorship but may face hurdles because of its complexity, the possible risks of such a plan and because it surfaced so late in the session.
If the plan works, supporters estimate the bill would bring PERA to solvency five years sooner than currently projected and would save $4.5 billion.
Heavyweight interests push for change in hospital fee
The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee spent a long afternoon listening to witnesses urging approval of House Bill 15-1389, another just-introduced measure that could provide future benefits for both K-12 and higher education.
The committee passed the bill 7-6 after hearing from a long parade of supporting witnesses representing K-12 and higher education, state agencies, major hospitals, think tanks and business groups. Committee Republicans, some of whom didn’t seem to fully grasp the bill, all voted no.
The bill involves a six-year-old state program called the hospital provider fee, which imposes a charge on hospitals. That revenue provides money the state uses to gain federal Medicaid matching funds, money that couldn’t be tapped without the fee.
Even though the charge is a fee, not a tax, the revenues count against the state’s spending limit under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Tax and fee revenue has risen fast enough that the state will need to pay TABOR refunds to taxpayers this year and, likely, a couple of years into the future.
That has squeezed the amount of additional money available for K-12 and other programs. The bill, sponsored by Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would reclassify provider fee revenues so that they wouldn’t count toward the TABOR limit. The fee program would become what’s called an “enterprise,” which isn’t subject to TABOR. For example, the state’s higher education system is classified as an enterprise, so tuition revenue isn’t counted against the limit.
There’s been chatter for months about reclassifying the provider fee, and Gov. John Hickenlooper belatedly proposed the change a couple of weeks ago.
The bill would “allow us to more fully fund the state’s top spending priorities in the coming years,” Hullinghorst said.
If the bill passes it won’t affect funding of any state programs in 2015-16, nor would it affect TABOR refunds to taxpayers in 2016. But it could free up more than $200 million in revenue for spending in 2016-17, and there wouldn’t be taxpayer refunds in 2017.
Without the bill, “There are going to be some big losers in the budget next year,” Hullinghorst warned, including transportation funding, higher education and likely K-12 as well.
The bill has some things working against it, including its lateness, its complexity and the fact that any perceived tinkering with TABOR makes Republicans nervous. The measure currently has no GOP sponsors in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.
But working in its favor is the phalanx of education, highway, health care and business lobbyists who’ve combined forces to push the bill.
Get more information about HB 15-1389 in this legislative staff summary.
House avoids school finance fight
The House Thursday, during its morning floor session, backed away from a confrontation with the Senate over the 2015-16 school-funding bill by stripping a controversial amendment from the measure.
The amendment, added on the House floor Thursday, would have resurrected a two-year legislative study of the school finance system. The Senate earlier killed a separate bill that contained the proposal.
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, proposed backing off Wednesday’s amendment.
While saying she supports the study, “We also have to be the adults in the room. The school finance bill passing in the Senate is really important.” Leaving the amendment in the bill “really does put the bill at risk.”
The House voted to strip the amendment and then passed Senate Bill 15-267 on a 45-19 vote. The measure returns to the Senate for consideration of non-controversial amendments added in the House earlier.
For the record
Help for rural districts – The Senate Education Committee, after about 90 minutes of wandering testimony and discussion, voted 6-3 to pass House Bill 15-1201. This measure would create a grant program for boards of cooperative educational services to help small school districts consolidate administrative services. The bill was introduced with a $10 million price tag, but it emerged from Senate Ed with only $2 million. And now the measure has to be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.