Lawmakers talk state budget

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Of the myriad issues facing Colorado lawmakers when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, none is as important as solving the fiscal mess created by conflicting constitutional amendments, Rep. Al White told members of the South Routt School Board at their meeting Thursday.

White, a Republican from Winter Park who is seeking re-election in November, joined state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, at the meeting. Both lawmakers were invited to the meeting by Superintendent Steve Jones to discuss the upcoming legislative session and how education issues might play a role. Taylor also is up for re-election, facing Steamboat Democrat Jay Fetcher.

"I think the hallmark of this upcoming legislative session is to try to get an amendment on the ballot for TABOR and Amendment 23," White said.

Lawmakers failed to devote the time necessary during the last legislative session to come up with a solution to conflicting laws that many blame for the state's fiscal problems, he said.

"I want to make sure this time we get this stuff at the front of the session," White said. "We just can't afford to come through this session without any solutions for the citizens."

TABOR -- the Taxpayers Bill of Rights -- was approved by voters in 1992 and limits the amount of revenue the state can collect and spend. Amendment 23 was approved by voters in 2000 and requires that public school budgets increase annually by inflation plus 1 percent.

Lawmakers probably will need to cut up to $263 million from the state budget next year, and with so many state departments and agencies already gutted by cost-cutting efforts from previous years, higher education could suffer the most, White said.

Higher tuitions and the elimination of some "esoteric" college programs and courses are possible ramifications of the deficit, White said.

"I don't know yet what it's going to look like, but it's not going to be pretty," he said.

Taylor said he's concerned the state will lose its most experienced college professors to other states, which will have a significant effect on the quality of higher education.

South Routt Superintendent Steve Jones asked White about a potential change to the public school finance act that would earmark money for individual schools as opposed to entire districts. Jones wanted to know whether White would fight to make sure smaller rural districts could opt out of such a measure.

It's unlikely that lawmakers who support the proposal could garner the political support to push it through the legislature, White responded, adding that he'd fight to continue to protect rural districts.

But if re-elected to his seat in November, White will almost certainly attempt to become House Majority Leader, which he said could necessitate stepping away from his seat on the House Education Committee. If that happened, White would work to get another rural legislature appointed to fill the vacancy, he told the South Routt School Board.

State funding for all-day kindergarten programs also was discussed at the meeting. The state currently funds half-day kindergarten programs in its public schools, and many educators and others would like to see the state begin to fund full-day programs.

But finding the money needed to pay for full-day kindergarten will be a substantial obstacle, White said. With an estimated price tag of between $50 million and $60 million, it's unlikely that lawmakers will be able to push it forward until a resolution to the fiscal problem is identified.

"There are so many things that hinge on the budget," Taylor said. "Until we get a resolution to the budget, we're not going to be able to address those other things like full-day kindergarten."

The South Routt School District has offered full-day kindergarten to its families for years, but it only receives state revenue for a half-day program.

Jones also asked about teacher contracts and whether lawmakers would push for a bill restricting or eliminating tenure for public school teachers.

"I'm not sure the political will will exist to pass a tenure bill this year," White said. Teacher tenure typically becomes a partisan issue dividing Democrats and Republicans, he said.

Jones said a change to the law that would create teacher contracts that last between three and five years could be beneficial to school districts.

"I think it's always nice for the employee and the employer to be on the same page in terms of what they value," Jones said. "That's not always the case."

White said he'd be willing to sponsor a bill dealing with teacher tenure if he knew he had the votes to get it through. He said he wasn't sure what any potential bill on the issue would consist of.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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