The Colorado legislative session was supposed to be all about funding transportation, but lawmakers spoke more about inroads and progress Wednesday as they adjourned the 120-day General Assembly.
Roads got a fraction of what lawmakers said they hoped to raise in January. Two bills would have allowed voters to decide on raising billions of dollars for projects such as unclogging traffic on interstates 25 and 70. Both died in the Republican-led Senate. Both had strong Republican support, but not enough.
The bills would have raised about $700 million annually, but the deal-breaker proved to be whether taxpayers should be asked to put more than they already do in the state’s $26.8 billion budget. Instead lawmakers reclassified a fee on hospital beds that will raise about $100 million a year. That money, however, would be allocated annually, and Colorado lawmakers have a history of neglecting transportation promises.
“I think we could have done better,” said Rep. Kimmi Lewis, R-Kim, lamenting money spent elsewhere in the budget that could have supported transportation and rural hospitals.
The freshman legislator said that next year she would be more aggressive against spending increases. Lewis supported the omnibus Senate Bill 267 because her district has five rural hospitals, and the bill includes $528 million to stave off cuts to hospitals across the state.
“I’m going to vote for it today, and that kills me,” Lewis said.
Lawmakers tinkered with hundreds of other bills, including a long-sought informed-consent law that applies before homeowners associations can sue builders for construction defects. None were as bright or bold as the failed transportation bills, however.
Charter school funding turned out to be a winner on the last day of the session when the legislature agreed on sharing future property tax increases equally with charter schools. After years of gridlock in the Capitol, charter school advocates called House Bill 1375 a breakthrough.
“Slowly but surely, based on what we’ve done with a couple of key education votes, we’ re changing our paradigm about how education and learning opportunities for children should be defined and delivered,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. “That’s a huge win, because that can transform students’ lives, than can transform how we deliver education, so we can bring education kicking and shouting into the 21st century.”
Lundeen hopes to maintain momentum on the subject with the bipartisan bill he sponsored. House Bill 1340 created a 10-member legislative committee to study school finance.
“We’re going to look at and define what it means to fund every student in Colorado with the respect that individual student deserves,” Lundeen said.
Senate Education Committee chairman Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, co-sponsored both bills along with other efforts to benefit charter schools this session.
“My priority is to always seek out new ways in which we can shift the focus on education in Colorado from a discussion about systems and institutions to one that emphasizes each students’ individual needs, goals and dreams,” Hill said.
Rep. Tony Exum Sr., D-Colorado Springs, said he was disappointed lawmakers can’t do more to address traffic north of Monument, but he was happy with his big legislative win to provide firefighters with a voluntary cancer fund they could pay into.
A career firefighter, Exum said he knew colleagues who died from complications of cancer waiting on insurers, who demand elaborate proof that the illness is work-related.
“We are out there putting our lives on the line trying to protect communities,” he said of the carcinogens fire crews face in burning buildings. “This is a byproduct of that. It’s a voluntary program to try to get some funds, because firefighters have died waiting on worker;s comp.”