Legislative Year: 2014 Change

Colorado Eyes & Ears »

September 13 changed the paths of the South Platte River and the creeks along the northern front of the Rockies that feed the river. Now the state wants to know if the epic flood finally knocked out non native salt cedar, or tamarisk, and Russian olive trees that have been out-competing native cotton woods along the river and creek beds.
These non native, weedy trees are water suckers. They grow in dense stands and their roots go deep down, taking up water from the water table that otherwise could go to agriculture and municipal uses.
Weed managers, weed scientists from CSU, and state ag researchers want to know how the South Platte flood affected dispersion of these shrubby, stringy, dusty plants in the flood zone. 
The researchers hope the flood wiped out the invasive plants, but they worry that the tree weeds, aka phreatophytes which thrive in dry climates along creeks and rivers, will further drive out native cotton woods and other benign vegetation.
For about $150,000, CSU, with funds from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will find out whether the state will have to use more tamarisk beetles and/or herbicides to get rid of the pests. Based on over 40 years of weed work by the US Bureau of Reclamation, bets go to the salt cedar.  
The Platte River Phreatophyte Study, SB14-195 with bipartisan Senate sponsorship, passed Senate Local Government on a 6-1 vote, with Sen. Gail Schwartz from Aspen voting NO. 
HB14-1009 takes on fire mitigation
Fires raging last year across the front range prompted the Wildfire Matters Review Committee to recommend giving property owners a tax credit rather than a tax deduction for fire mitigation.
The change ups the ante to encourage property owners to get serious about clearing brush, changing roofing materials, and swapping wood decks for composite materials.  
Property owners submitted $1.2 million in fire mitigation tax deductions in 2012, according to the Department of Revenue, representing a little more than $800 per return, on average.  The credit ratchets up the tax break to a maximum credit of $2500 per year, with five years of carry-over.
According to testimony, new developments will face stricter zoning rules on roofs, decks, vents, and spaces between forests and homes. Development growth may go up by 300 percent over 15 years.  
Rivers moving, fires burning, tamarisk growing, Russian olives spreading.  That's the new Colorado.  
The Title Setting Board took two days last week to translate "lawyer" into English so the public can make "reasoned decisions" about what to add to the state's constitution or statutes. 

Some issues reflect the peculiarities of Colorado.  Eight issues relate to oil and gas well setbacks of various distances.  Proponents will  collect signatures on the distance they think will most likely win, seeking the farthest possible point at which voters will think "that's still too close to my house."
The Independence Institute jumped into the current school board wars with its open negotiations over collective bargaining agreements, and animal protectors weighed in with no docking dairy cow tails or euthanizing pets in shelters. 
Some initiatives reflect an individual's commitment, such as prohibitions against artificial fluoride in water systems (re: Dr. Strangelove) or starting up a state-owned bank. 
Not all arguments are made by lawyers.  Jon Caldera of the Independence Institute urged the Board to reduce the legalese in his collective bargaining initiative. The title went from over a 100 words to 42.  
Both sides of an issue present their reasoning for particular wording.  The initiative's content must be contained within the title (single subject), and words may not be loaded to appeal to emotions rather than reason. This approach creates discussions about semantics and grammar.

As an example, the oil and gas well amendment titles were not allowed to contain the phrase, "including those using hydraulic fracturing."  The industry argued that the term "hydraulic fracturing" had taken on a negative connotation and thus pushed the tone of the initiative to favor proponents. The Title Board ultimately agreed with opponents and settled on "oil and gas well" as the least charged description. 

The local control of oil and gas development initiative stimulated a 45 minute discussion over the meaning of the word "limit." Proponents argued that "limit" was the exact definition of the types of actions local governments could take related to fracking.  Opponents wanted to ensure that the public would know that "limit" could allow localities to go as far as the prohibition of drilling. The Title Board selected "restrict or prohibit" as the final language.

At times it seemed the attorneys and board members were solving quadratic equations as they worked through punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure.  The Board slowly moved 48 initiatives to the next stage - getting signatures. 

Not every initiative will go to the signature gathering stage, and not every initiative will receive enough signatures.  But it looks right now like a long ballot in 2014, with citizens deciding everything from "what's a fee" to public trust over the environment to the distance between a casino and a school.  The volume may not be typical for the state, but the variety certainly is.  PEN, CCW

In the long story short tradition, the majority party has more fun.  So far, 568 bills are, or have been, in the hopper.  The Governor has signed 129 bills.  The two chambers have PIed 133 bills. 

Of the 133 PIed bills, 84 had only GOP sponsors.  Of the 129 signed bills, 47 had only Dem sponsors.  The Governor has vetoed two bills, both with only Democratic sponsors (ouch!).

It's fair to say that the GOP has thrown up many of its most controversial bills, especially in an election year, so lots of its PIed bills are highly political. 

One can also say that Dems have been reasonably fair to Republicans in the signed bill category, as 82 of 129 bills have either mixed sponsorship or all Republican sponsors. 

That bit of the story may not make it to the highly contested races to confront the state this summer and fall. With 300 bills left to move through in 18 DAYS, it's bound to be lively, contentious, and grumpy.  More as bills progress...  

“Suck it up, soccer moms.”  This artful advice, based on comments from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was splashed last month across the home page of the education reform non profit, America Succeeds

America Succeeds was organized by Wall Street investment bankers.  It has two prominent Coloradans on its five member board:  State Senator Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Donnell Kay Foundation Executive Director Tony Lewis.

Sen. Johnston recently added to America Succeeds’ snicker, calling some citizens objecting to his policies of relentless standardized testing and student data collection, “Cherry Creek cheerleaders.”

Johnston and allies lead state education "reform" 

Johnston has allied himself with a gaggle of Big Ed Reformers:  Colorado Legacy Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Donnell Kay Foundation, Colorado Succeeds, Democrats for Education Reform, Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, Pearson Company, Microsoft, Google, Michael Bloomberg, and wealthy New York hedge fund managers. 

Ruppert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul of British phone hacking fame, has joined his fellow education reform supporters, cashing in with his Amplify product, aligned perfectly to common core reform instruction. Every child's key strokes are collected and stored for posterity and data mining. 

These rich “reformers,” billionaires and foundations supported by billionaires, reflect the essence of the grassroots cheerleaders’ fears. Big Government, Big Foundations, and Big Corporations are using the Big Data Technology revolution to repeat the old VietNam war stratagem: We will blow up your schools in order to save your schools.

Grassroots “cheerleaders,” short on Monied Underwriters, nevertheless showed up at the Capitol to lobby two Johnston bills, including  SB14-165, giving districts a one-year break on using growth data in teacher evaluations (amend), and the ironically named Student Success Act, HB14-1292 (amend), a $100 million diversion of school funds for various Johnston programs defeated in the Amendment 66 debacle.

The cheerleaders even had the temerity to try to protect student data from the shark jaws of Big Business, HB14-1294 (see Murdoch, MIcrosoft, Google above).  They worked to allow parents to opt their kids out of the tests, HB14-1202, a bill now narrowed to assess assessments, their costs and impacts on kids, teachers, schools, and districts.

Tony Lewis at Donnell Kay will remake public education 

Unlike the cheerleaders, Tony Lewis, the America Succeeds board member and FOJ, has the Senator's support to "reschool" education for all of Colorado using digital advances and online distance learning as the solution to closing various achievement gaps.  Colleen Broderick will lead this reform.  She says, "Technology doesn't have to completely replace all components of today's current learning system; in fact, the element of engaging with people and community face to face is equally essential."  Good to know.

Pearson profits from PARRC, the coming 2015 trainwreck    

Pearson Company, the PARRC exam experimenter, received $185 million of Race to the Top money to build the tests. It's also partnering with Microsoft so kids can take advantage of Windows 8 touch screen technology to use curriculum, produced by Pearson, that's perfectly aligned with Common Core.  

In a recent Education Committee hearing, Johnston rejected any prospect of reassessing the state's future testing program. Rather than take a pause based on the Pearson test results in New York identifying 66% of that state's children as not proficient in anything, Johnston insists that the state must move forward.  President Dwight Eisenhower would recognize this scenario:  the standardized testing industrial complex.

Pearson will gain more profits through its cleverly named partner enterprise, Knewton.  Knewton feeds kids Common Core-branded digital worksheets based specifically on a student's learning style. The goal is to help students do well on the PARRC exams, which may ultimately be used to replace ACT and SAT for college admission. 

But many colleges are moving away from the test requirement. Over 800 colleges now offer no-test admissions, according to an NPR story, and have found that a student's grades are the best predictor of student success in college.

Legacy Foundation goes back to '70s for classroom model 

The Colorado Legacy Foundation, an amply funded non profit enabling Johnston's vision through its 41 employees, has received $22 million from the Gates Foundation, at last count. Legacy is running its own experiments in Big Data, promoting a non profit called New Classrooms

School of One, a New Classrooms' "innovation" that looks a lot like the old open classrooms of the '70s, helps teachers provide "personalized education" from "multiple modalities of instruction." According to the New Classrooms design, over 100 kids will sit quietly and dutifully working either in teams, in a long line at computer terminals, or receiving lectures from two teachers with support from two other cheaper-to-employ adults.

Like every other Big Ed reform entity, New Classrooms has Very Big Technology and Investment Capital Money behind it, including the Bezos Family Foundation, New Profit Inc., Salmon River Capital, the Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation.

Parents worried about the overwhelming import of data driven, digitally based instruction are told by Legacy to calm down and get rid of their “heebie jeebies.” Teachers should also stop “wigging out” over these initiatives, according to an elected official close to both the Legacy Foundation and the Colorado Department of Education.

Johnston: Don Quixote or Ahab?  

Johnston, along with his benefactors and staff of four when every other legislator has one part-timer, has taken Colorado students, parents, and educators on a very long ride of teacher performance evaluation, school assessment, and student testing. Time, money, and human resources, all at the expense of other education priorities, have been sunk into the reform vision.

But it hasn't worked out the way Johnston and his fellow visionaries want. Colorado's achievement results, after 13 years of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, haven't budged in any significant way, according to standardized tests.

Johnston's initiatives have failed to produce replicable education programs helpful to all kids in neighborhood schools, comprehensive middle and high schools, charter schools, and especially the online distance schools.  He is known for his  Teach for America speech on "hard truths."  These particular hard truths are apparently hard for him to swallow.

Little attention to parents' schools of choice: neighborhood schools 

In fact, Johnston's and the Foundations' vision doesn't include much for neighborhood and community schools, the most frequent choice schools for parents and the backbone of Colorado's education structure. His policies have pressured rural schools, leaving them underfunded.  His  SB13-213 financially punished suburban schools to such a degree, and pushed such a massive state overreach into the affairs of local districts, that it was rejected 2:1 by Colorado voters.

His latest foray into Big Money partnerships is the recently introduced SB14-185, the Pay for Success School and Community Performance Contract bill. The idea of the bill is to give contractors the opportunity to save government entities future money through early childhood education programs. 

The Office of State Planning and Budgeting has to figure out the amount of money contractors have saved governments, one presumes, based on analysis of preschool student outcomes. If a contractor produces kids who don't go to prison, one way the program is used in Britain, the contractor could make some real Big Money. If the bill passes, the state will dump $25 million into a pay for success fund. Who can't get behind this idea?

Parents want fewer tests, more instruction 

Despite Sen. Johnston's diss of Colorado citizens, parents resisting the reformer's vision are not afraid of assessment and accountability.  A reasonable testing system based on reliable, not experimental, tests is what they want.  They are not afraid of data. They are concerned about unsecured, misused, and inappropriate data collection.

In Johnston's world, asking local districts and parents what will work for their schools is not what he's about (see bills above).  Just look at who's for and against  HB14-1292, the Student Success Act, to see how school districts are now reacting to reform initiatives (go to the lobbyists link)

Education reform that delegates teaching to technology will fail. Education reform that isolates students in a digital cocoon will fail.  Education initiatives that connect students and teachers and schools and communities and puts the human back into learning and the person back into personalized will ultimately make the most difference.  PEN,CCW

Can’t we all just get along?  That question is run up Colorado’s flagpole at the beginning of every General Assembly.  So far, with two-thirds of the session over and about three-quarters of the bills still in the sausage maker, legislators are showing much more collegiality this year, except, of course, for two bickering members of House Appropriations.

One month to go, 75% of bills still churning through

Caveats first:  both chambers have a lot more bills, many contentious, not even half way through the grinder.  The Governor signed 441 bills into law in the 2013 session.  As of April 4, 2014, he’s signed 113 bills.  He’s vetoed two in this election year, demonstrating his independence, according to pundits.  He vetoed one other bill in 2012, another election year in which he showed his independence.

Some numbers:  legislators have introduced 546 bills.  190 bills have both Democratic and Republican sponsors. Of the 113 the Governor has signed, twenty are supplemental appropriations sponsored by the majority party.  Of the 93 remaining signed bills, 52 have bipartisan sponsorship.  The Governor has signed 7 bills sponsored only by Republicans.

2013 GOP House and Senate broke bad on Dem bills

Some House Republicans last year opposed all but the most innocuous Democratic bills. Rep. Justin Everett (S.Jeffco) voted YES 164/NO 241 times, Rep. Steve Humphrey (Severence) voted YES 177/NO 229 times, and Rep. Lori Saine (Firestone) voted YES 196/NO 238 times.

2013 Republican State Senators weren’t quite as vehement, but many voted NO from 30% to just over 40% of the time.  Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman voted NO 38%, Sen. Mark Scheffel voted NO 40%, and Sens. Vicki Marble and Scott Renfroe voted NO 41% of the time.

2014 Dems vote together, will run together

In 2014 so far, Democrats have held steady to their 2013 unanimous voting habits.  Out of 113 signed bills, Senate Democrats voted YES 1992 times, NO 6 times.  House Dems voted YES 4091 times, NO 16 times.

Two of the Dem NO votes in the House came, curiously, from Rep. Crisanta Duran (Denver) and Jenise May (Aurora) on the same bill, HB14-1024, the Claret Cup Cactus as State Cactus bill.  The claret cup cactus is a lovely, deep red flowering plant that coincides with the essence of our state’s name, Colorado. Who'da thunk it?

A similar bill to name the Palisade Peach as the state fruit should receive a unanimous vote from all legislators of both parties, according to Colorado pundits, all of whom love all things western slope.

House GOP moves center; Everett stays rightest on bills sponsored

House Republicans in 2014 have a whole new voting style.  Everett is now 56 YES/32 NO (he’s missed quite a few final votes); Humphrey is 72 YES/39 NO; and Saine is 72 YES/32 NO. 

Nine House Republicans have voted YES 90+ times on the 113 signed bills.  An additional nine Republican House members have voted YES 80+ times.

Rep. Saine went 0-11 in bills sponsored in 2013.  Just one bill had a Democratic co-sponsor. This year, Saine has 9 of 14 bills with Democratic co-sponsors; SB14-063, the Mandatory Review of State Agency Rules bill, has been signed by the Governor; her remaining 6 bills look good for final passage. 

Rep. Humphrey ran 6 bills in 2013, and all were postponed indefinitely.  This year, he has 4 of 7 bills with Democratic co-sponsors; a flood related bill has been signed by the Governor; two more bills, including one of the most popular in the session – removing cameras from providing evidence for speeding tickets – will pass, all pundits hope.

Only Rep. Everett has done a double-down on sure-to-fail bills, going 0-6 in 2014 after passing 2 of 6 in 2013.

GOP Senators edge to center too

On the Senate side, two of the most conservative legislators in 2013, Sen. Vicki Marble (Fort Collins) and Sen. Scott Renfroe (Greeley) have sought out and received some Dem co-sponsors. 

Sen. Marble had no Dem co-sponsors in 2013 and passed two bills.  This year, she’s run five bills; her bill with a Democrat co-sponsor is signed.  Another bill to protect children has a very good chance of passing.  SB14-136, postponing state standardized testing for one year, had Democratic grassroots support but failed in the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Renfroe ran 10 bills in 2013, one with a Democrat co-sponsor.  Two were signed by the Governor.  He is running 11 bills this year, five with Democratic co-sponsors.

Is goodwill good or bad?

With this relative comity, at least compared to 2013, some might wonder as to the source of the good will.  CCW posits four scenarios, two focusing on sincerity and two focusing on cynicism.

  • Democrats, chastened by the recalls in summer of 2013, have tempered their politics, moved to the center, and sought Republican common ground.  Luckily, they’ve found some.
  • Republicans, seeing Colorado as a purple state, have cooperated with Democrats to achieve some practical goals.
  • Democrats, understanding that the 2013 summer could predict the 2014 fall, cut back on ideology and moved to the center to save the Senate, hold the House, and support the Governor.
  • Republicans, understanding that 2014 is an election year, and licking their chops over the real possibility of winning back the Senate and maybe the Governor’s seat, and with a whole lot of luck, the State House, decided to trim their sails and get some work done.

In any of these scenarios, it can be argued that Coloradans have benefited.  Already the claret cactus is the state xeriscape prodigy, the Palisade Peach is likely to be the state fruit, and happiest of all, cameras may be taken off heavily trafficked intersections so Coloradans will once again get their tickets at Belleview and University and Santa Fe and Mineral the old fashioned way.  PEN, CCW

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