Republicans in the Colorado Senate are walking a tightrope as they attempt to make progress on a bill that would free up millions of dollars for rural hospitals, schools and transportation projects in rural communities.
On one side are at least a dozen rural hospitals in financial trouble, including several that may close without the funds that come from the state’s hospital provider fee program.
Rural lawmakers — and urban ones, too — are hearing regularly that lives will be at risk if they don’t pass a bill that would reclassify the provider fee program into a government-owned business. The fee currently counts towards state Taxpayer Bill of Rights spending limits, prompting Governor John Hickenlooper to propose steep cuts to it in his recent budget proposal. Reclassifying the fee would take the money generated by the program out of the spending limits, eliminating the need for such cuts.
On the other side are outside organizations, mostly conservative, who believe any changes to the program would violate the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Some say that it’s just another tax being imposed by the state. Some opponents of the bill have threatened Republican lawmakers with primaries for the 2018 election, while others are working the Senate to see that the measure doesn’t succeed.
An investigator with the state attorney general’s office has been calling members of the 2016 class of Colorado’s Electoral College in the past week, multiple ex-electors told The Colorado Independent.
The investigator left messages asking to discuss the events leading up to the votes they cast at the state capitol on Dec. 19.
Reached by phone, the investigator punted questions to the attorney general’s spokeswoman, who declined to comment.
A national spotlight fell on Colorado’s nine electors— all of them Democrats— when four of them joined a national movement called the Hamilton Electors, which aimed to thwart the election of Donald Trump through the Electoral College process.
The plan was to get enough electors nationwide to band together and vote for an alternate candidate, keeping Trump from the White House. But that would mean electors in 29 states would have to violate state laws that require electors to vote for whichever candidate won their state’s popular vote. In Colorado that meant Hillary Clinton.
The effort did not pan out, but one Colorado elector, Micheal Baca, chose to vote for someone other than Clinton— Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Doing so made Baca the first elector in Colorado history to vote for someone who did not win the state’s popular vote.
At the time, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams asked Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to investigate Baca’s vote as a violation. Now, four months later, and investigator is calling around, according to multiple electors.
Two of them, former law maker Polly Baca and math teacher Jerad Sutton said they haven’t cooperated. Micheal Baca referred questions to his attorney, Mark Grueskin, who said he represents Baca “on the fallout of the Electoral College vote,” and that he is aware there is some sort of investigation going on. “We’ll see whether or not there’s anything that comes of it,” he said.
A bipartisan attempt to reform how Colorado schools discipline their youngest students died Monday, even after the bill’s sponsors offered amendments to placate rural school leaders who opposed the legislation.
The Republican-controlled State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill House Bill 1210. Two Republicans who voted against the measure said they felt the bill stripped away crucial tools teachers and principals need to manage their classroom.
The bill would have allowed schools to expel and suspend students if they posed a physical threat to themselves or others.
“Our teachers need the tools,” said state Senator Vicki Marble, a Fort Collins Republican. “I would say give them a bar of soap and let them use it when they need it.”
A third Colorado Springs Republican, state Senator Owen Hill, said he felt the bill was an overreach by state lawmakers. Sponsors and proponents of the bill said they were disappointed but vowed to bring the legislation back next year.
“New ideas don’t always make it the first try, or even the second or third try,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “But what it does is it creates thought and discussion. Sometimes it takes your colleagues time to see the light.”
The original bill would have curbed out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would have permitted out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.
In general, suspensions would have been limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.
Proponents of the bill spent more than a year crafting it. They say there are too many students in those early grades being suspended out of school, and that the tactic doesn’t work.
Last year, Colorado schools suspended students in grades below the third grade more than 7,000 times. Boys, especially black and Latino boys, were overrepresented in that group.
“The practice has shown repeatedly to make the problem worse,” said Phillip Strain, an early childhood education professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “Suspension and expulsion occurs at a local school level, but there is an economic ripple effect across the state and across the country.”
The bill hit an unexpected late roadblock when rural school leaders voiced opposition to the bill.
On Monday, two rural superintendents said that the bill violated their local control and that more mental health resources for students was a better solution.
“I think what it comes down for me, more than anything, is that we have continually eroded away local control and the authority of our local school boards to make the decisions they need to make,” said Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo School District in Merino.
In an effort to win over support from lawmakers sympathetic to the rural concerns, the bill’s sponsors offered three amendments that substantially weakened the bill.
The first made the bill only about suspensions, allowing for use of expulsions. The second amendment limited the bill to pre-school through the first grade. And the third amendment exempted rural schools from the law altogether.
All three amendments were unanimously approved. Then the Republicans killed the bill.
“We’re going to bring it back until we get those done. It needs to be done,” said Representative Susan Lontine, a Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House. “When the reasons for not voting for the bill were taken off the table by those amendments that they all agreed to, and they still used them for reasons to vote against the bill … It doesn’t make sense.”
For more on these and other local stories go to ColoradoIndependent.com