Ritter gives session an 'A' for education

Bipartisan efforts bolster advances

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter signed the Legislature’s last eight bills into law June 5, bringing the total to 475 bills signed this year.

And with that, the 2008 session came to a complete close.

The governor dubbed 2008 the “education session,” and said education issues were the big winner this year, with notable advances in school funding and system reform on the leading edge.

“We rank 45th in the country for the percentage of native-born residents who earn college degrees. And as a nation, we are one of just two industrialized countries in the world whose college-completion rate is actually declining. We can do better. We must do better. With these new bills, we will do better,” Ritter declared.

Tony Salazar, the legislative liaison of the Colorado Education Association, commented, “In general, all of education had a very good year.”

Highlights, he said, include the Building Excellent Schools Today Act (BEST), which will pour an estimated $1 billion into capital construction for repair of crumbling school buildings. Salazar called the measure a “major bill for us,” and lamented the disrepair in many areas as “just atrocious.”

Salazar also said the 2008 School Finance Act, which included funding for thousands of new preschool and kindergarten slots for at-risk kids, also gave reason to celebrate.

One measure he’s apprehensive about, however, is the much-vaunted Colorado Achievement Plan, or CAP for Kids, which has been called “revolutionary” by backers such as Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. Salazar said he’s most worried about how the bill will be implemented, a process that has been left to the State Board of Education.

The bill was designed to revamp statewide education standards and testing systems and to streamline schools processes from preschool through high school. Salazar warned, however, that tampering by the SBOE actually could increase the burden on teachers and schools.

Among other things, the measure requires the SBOE and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to develop new definitions and standards for “school readiness” and “postsecondary and workforce readiness,” but leaves the exact details to the SBOE and CCHE. That, said Salazar, could prove problematic.

“It’s a great big unknown,” he said. “We just don’t know until the work is actually done. Some of our members are concerned that it could end up with more required tests, or as another unfunded mandate.”

Ritter, however, called the measure “some of the most important work the Legislature did this session.”

And with Colorado’s Education Commissioner, Dwight Jones, overseeing the process, bill sponsor Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Genessee, said he’s confident the system will wind up better than before.

Witwer also hailed the Democrats as having been willing to support issues important to Republicans in an effort to accomplish meaningful reform this year. A prime example of that, he said, was the governor’s push to include a boost in graduation standards in the CAP for Kids measure that Witwer, along with Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, had run unsuccessfully for several years.

The only difference, Witwer said, was that he and other Republicans had initially focused on requiring a certain number of years in high school math and science, whereas the CAP for Kids measure sets proficiency as the standard.

“You can’t accomplish this kind of reform without bipartisan consensus,” Witwer said, praising the governor.

Ritter returned the compliment just after the session ended, going so far as to single out Witwer by name during a press conference and saying that the Genessee Republican was a role model of bipartisanship.

In an op-ed for the Canyon Courier, Witwer gave the Legislature a B+ on education, citing both the CAP for Kids measure and the BEST Act, but said he downgraded the Legislature from an A because the School Finance Act reduced charter school funding by $4.5 million and because efforts to include English language standards as a requisite for high school graduation were killed.

Ritter inked several other education bills into law over the past couple of months. A sampling includes Senate Bill 218, a bipartisan measure that funnels more Federal Mineral Lease revenue into construction and maintenance for higher education; SB 130, yet another bipartisan measure by Witwer and Senate President Peter Groff to allow schools to operate more independently of state restrictions; HB 1370, which created a “Colorado Counselor Corps” to help combat the state’s high dropout rate; and SB 233, a $200 million construction bill for universities and colleges across the state.

Additionally, Ritter is backing a ballot measure that would erase a tax credit currently granted to oil and gas companies, and the added revenue, estimated at $300 million annually, would be dedicated to “Colorado Promise Scholarships” for college-bound students.

Health care a success, depending on whom you ask

Education issues may have brought Republicans and Democrats together, but health care was the issue that drove them apart. While Ritter and the majority party expanded state-funded coverage for children and laid the groundwork for further government involvement in the coming years, Republicans blasted them for growing government too much and hampering the insurance market, which they see as the true solution to rising health care costs.

But Ritter and other Democrats hailed their victories, some of which were bipartisan, as a “solid foundation” for future reforms.

Ritter signed a package of laws dubbed the “Building Blocks to Health Care Reform” on June 3, which included major expansions of Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+) for low-income children throughout the state, as well as a number of bills to help streamline the health care system and reduce costs.

But, said many supporters, this is just the beginning.

“We’ve gotten more done under this governor in health care in this year than we have in a long time in Colorado,” said Dede de Percin, the executive director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. “The flip side is, health care reform is huge and there’s a lot more that we need to do.”

But not everyone agreed with her. Mike Huotari, the director of Colorado Association of Health Plans, said insurance companies felt “inappropriately targeted” during the session. He pointed to a number of Democratic bills, especially HB 1389 by Rep. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. The bill, dubbed the Fair Accountable Insurance Rates (FAIR) Act, was signed by Ritter on June 5 and gives the state power to reject insurance rate increases.

A second measure that the governor also signed, HB 1407, is designed to crack down even harder on insurers who don’t pay valid claims to their customers. Huotari, along with other industry representatives and Republicans, objected to the bill, saying penalties already exist for carriers who unjustly deny claims.

“That was really a trial lawyers’ bill,” Huotari said.

However, he and other industry insiders broke with Republicans on Ritter’s “Building Blocks” package, and said that, by and large, insurers were applauding the Medicaid and CHP+ expansions because they helped relieve pressure on the private sector.

“That’s a success for the state and for us. We want people to be covered, obviously,” Huotari said.

But, he added, many of the Democratic maneuvers were aimed at the “right problem but the wrong solution,” adding that much of what was done this session focused on fringe issues and not on cost, the core problem of health care.

Mike Feeley, a lawyer and lobbyist for Exempla Healthcare who doubles as Ritter’s campaign treasurer, said the Legislature is handicapped by the state’s role in the country as a whole.

“At the state level, it’s very difficult to get a handle on some of these issues. The state Legislature does have to remember that they’re not Congress,” said Feeley, a former state legislator. “People come in and say they want universal health coverage in Colorado.

“And come on. It’s not going to happen at a state level.”

Instead, he said, the state will probably have to wait to take any meaningful action until at least after the 2009 Congress meets and provides some guidance to the states. So if the long-rumored ballot measure to increase taxes to pay for health care reform is on the way, it probably won’t arrive until at least the fall of 2010.

Some other health care measures Ritter signed into law include SB 135, which creates a standardized medical ID card that hospitals can use to cut down on paperwork; HB 1385, which creates a consumer shopping guide through the Colorado Division of Insurance; HB 1410, which requires coverage to include screening for colorectal cancer; HB 1372, which supports utilizing umbilical cord blood collection for public blood banks; and SB 217, which directs the state Department of Health Care Policy to begin developing a long-term strategy for covering every Coloradan. (Currently, there are roughly 792,000 uninsured residents, about one-fifth of the state.)

Transportation: zero action on the “quiet crisis”

The day before the legislative session ended, Ritter called the lack of action on transportation funding the “biggest disappointment of the session,” and called the situation a “quiet crisis.”

According to estimates by the Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission that Ritter convened in 2007, the state would need to boost funding for transportation projects by at least $500 million annually in order to maintain the current transportation infrastructure at a safe level. To increase the quality of Colorado’s roads and bridges, the commission released funding plans that called for up to $2 billion in new annual revenue.

That, however, would mean raising taxes — or at least raising fees. Which is exactly what Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, tried to do with SB 244. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, would have raised automobile registration fees by an average of $100, resulting in an estimated $500 million increase in transportation funding. But the bill was killed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and frustrated observers from the Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission blamed its death on politics.

“With the politics that we have in this state, I can’t say I was shocked that nothing came out of it,” said Bob Tointon, a commission co-chair.

Neal Hall, the business manager of the Colorado Building Construction and Trades Council, blamed Ritter for failing to throw his full weight behind SB 244.

“He seems to back off immediately if it seems to be controversial,” Hall said. “Heck, we met all summer. Everywhere we went, we said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be controversial, but it has to be done.’ Somebody needs to step up to the plate.”

“Certainly, we were disappointed,” said Tony Milo, the executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association and a member of the transportation commission.

Milo pointed out that federal funding to Colorado was slashed this year by an additional $200 million, so the gap has now increased from a need for a $500 million fix-it-first funding stream to $700 million.

“It’s devastating, actually… We saw 244 as a stopgap to fill that $200 million cut. We weren’t going to gain much, we were just going to be treading water,” he said.

Tointon, however, said he fully expects some kind of funding measure to emerge during the 2009 session, and during a summer conference of Colorado Counties, Inc. this week, Ritter renewed the transportation commission for an additional year.

“This work will not be simple, and it will not be easy. But it is essential for the future of Colorado’s economy and our overall quality of life,” Ritter said.

The governor also expanded the commission’s duties to include developing a plan for a “broad public education campaign” and “specific funding proposals,” though specifics were included in the last report to the Legislature and gave rise to SB 244.

In a statement, a number of legislators, including Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, and Rice praised the decision to extend the commission.

But even before Ritter took that action, commissioners had taken steps of their own, and organized a small bipartisan band of legislators to meet during the off-months to try and hammer out a workable compromise on transportation. Members include Reps. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Rice, along with Sens. Penry and Romer.

And, according to Rice, “Everything is on the table.” He said a ballot measure to raise either taxes or fees somehow is probably going to be necessary in 2009, but he wasn’t sure what form it would take.

The handful of transportation safety bills Ritter signed into law dealt with increased regulation and safety standards, not infrastructure funding.