This page lists some of the bigger issues facing the legislature in 2011 – the topics you’re reading about in the headlines and hearing debated at water coolers everywhere. I’ve given some quick background information and listed some of my thoughts on the issue. I’ve also added some links to helpful resources on some of the topics. If you don’t see the Hot Topic of the day listed here, CONTACT ME and ask me to add it to this page.
State Budget Shortfall
The current recession is the deepest and most sustained economic slowdown since the Great Depression. State tax revenues have plummeted with the economy and consumer confidence. Although we are now seeing revenues rebound, the recovery is painfully slow and there remains a severe “structural deficit” gap that must be closed. Gov. Hickenlooper’s proposed budget for FY 2012-13 shows reductions in many key government services, such as K-12 education, higher education, Medicaid and human services. It’s going to be difficult and the debates probably won’t be pleasant.
School Finance & Higher Education
Gov. Hickenlooper’s budget proposal includes $375 million in reductions for K-12 schools, and although it sounds much smaller, a comensurate cut of $36 million to higher education. These figures are startling and should alarm us all. Whether you have students in Colorado schools or not, our inability to properly fund our education system is bad news for everyone. Without a sound public education system our state will be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining new businesses and jobs in Colorado. Investments in public education are investments in economic development, making our state more welcoming to companies and better postitioned to supply the highly-trained workforce that jobs of the future require.
The Senate Democratic Caucus is committed to supporting public schools. As a leader on the Joint Budget Committee I will be working throughout the budget process to minimize the cuts to public education. We need to look for every possible way to increase efficiency and decrease waste throughout the budget so that our children and our future can be brighter. Every cut we make to wasteful, inefficient or non-essential programs means fewer cuts for schools. Every extra dollar we can find will be applied to our education programs. That’s the plan and we’re sticking to it – wish us luck.
In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students
Some graduates of Colorado high schools are unable to qualify for in-state tuition rates because of their undocumented immigration status. Although these students meet the admission requirements, they cannot afford the high tuition rates charged to nonresidents. SB 11-126 proposes to create a new classification known as “unsubsidized in-state tuition” to permit students that graduated from Colorado public high schools after at least three years of continuous enrollment to pay in-state tuition rates when they go on to pursue their education at a state-supported institution of higher education. Unsubsidized students will not receive College Opportunity Fund stipends and will be responsible for paying the entire amount of in-state tuition without public assistance. The difference in tuition rates will make higher education much more accessible to students in this situation, and it will increase badly needed tuition revenues to our state colleges and universities.
Of all the bills I am sponsoring this year, SB 172 is a labor of love. It proposes the creation of the “Colorado Civil Unions Act,” which would offer unmarried, committed couples (regardless of gender) the opportunity to form a civl union so their relationship and the bond they share would be recognized under Colorado law. Relationship recognition allows important legal benefits and protections to attach, making the couple responsible for one another and better able to deal with the challenges that life has in store for us all. From parental rights to end-of-life decision-making, life’s highs and lows are easier to handle when a predictable, established and familiar set of rules is in place to resolve disputes and controversies. That familiar set of rules works quite well for married couples, and through civil unions most of those same rules can be applied to others. Civil unions make existing laws and protections more inclusive and more fair. Across the country states are adopting laws like SB 172 – Illinois and Hawaii are recent examples – and public opinion polls suggest Colorado is ready for civil unions as well.
CLICK HERE for the full text of SB 11-172.
Senior Property Tax Homestead Exemption
The tax exemption for seniors aged 65 or over who’ve owned their homes for 10 years or longer was passed by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2000 – the same year as Amendment 23 passed. The voters were feeling generous. But the amendment gave the legislature the power to set the amount of the exception wherever they choose. 2009 wasn’t the first time the legislature has “zeroed it out.” During the recession in 2003 it was eliminated for two years. In the 2010 legislative session we again set the amount at zero for two additional years, saving over $90 million for the current and the next budget year. As it now stands, the tax exemption is scheduled to once again become available in property tax year 2013.
This tax exemption was well-intentioned, but could have been better thought out. Its best feature is deference to the legislature to set the amount, and we should leave it at zero. A more targeted approach would be means-tested and designed to allow low-income seniors age in place in their homes, and offer more flexibility to those who move into smaller or safer homes or care centers. Rather than bring back the tax credit in the constitution, I’d like to see a tax break targeted for those most in need.
Criminal Justice Reform – Alternatives for Drug Offenders
My service on the Drug Policy Task Force of the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice revealed a wealth of research into the smartest ways to deal with drug offenders. Prison is generally not cost effective for this population. Recidivism rates for drug offenders are not good – we shouldn’t be sending them to prison in the first place. Prison sentences for a drug offender makes it more likely that he or she will return to prison after their first stay. Community-based treatment programs have been proven to be effective at saving money in state budgets and saving lives. It costs less to treat an addiction and turn a life around than it does for society to keep paying the costs of drug abuse, which include not only incarceration but also new crimes, lost productivity, health care and social services.
CLICK HERE for a leading study on the national costs of substance abuse and addiction.
Reforming the Controlled Substances Act to use evidenced-based alternatives to our current criminal sentencing code is something we began in the 2010 legislative session and must continue to address. The treatment infrastructure needs to keep pace with our new priority for treatment over incarceration. The CCJJ has continued to approve our recommendations from the Drug Policy Task Force and a new set will be debated in the 2011 legislative session. I’m sponsoring two of the bills to carry forward the 2011 recommendations, SB 11-096 and HB 11-1064.
Find more about the sentencing reform legislation passed last year, HB 10-1352, on the “2010 Session Archive” page by CLICKING HERE.