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2008 legislative session: For education, at least, it was a banner year

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By Rob Witwer

The 2008 legislative session is in the books, so it’s time to take a look at a few key policy areas and grade our work.

On education, the legislature gets a B+. 2008 was a banner year for education reformers, led by a coalition of Republicans and inner-city Democrats. This combination of reform-minded legislators proved to be the catalyst for several key bills putting the interests of kids ahead of special interests.

SB 212 will revise model content standards and assessments with an eye toward helping the next generation compete in the global economy. SB 130 allows schools to opt out of the “one size fits all” model imposed by union collective bargaining agreements, paving the way for new ideas and innovation. The BEST Act (which stands for “Build Excellent Schools Today”) bonds against existing revenue streams to put critical dollars into capital construction projects.

We didn’t merit an “A” for two reasons. First, the House Education Committee attempted to amend the School Finance Act to reduce charter school funding by $4.5 million statewide (which would have included an approximate reduction of $45,000 to Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen). While we managed to strip that damaging amendment out of the act when the bill moved to the House floor, it sends a clear signal to charter school advocates that they must keep a wary eye on those in the House Education Committee trying to reduce their funding.

The House Education Committee also killed two efforts to require English language proficiency as a graduation requirement. It’s a no-brainer to say that a kid must be proficient in English to graduate. Any child — especially a first-generation American whose parents aren’t native English speakers — is ill-served if he or she gets a diploma without being able to communicate in the language of the land.

When it comes to fiscal responsibility, the 2008 legislature earns a D. This year’s budget spends about a billion dollars more than last year’s budget and adds over 1,300 new employees to the state payroll — all at a time when state revenue forecasts are trending downward due to a weakened economy.

The budget sends exactly the wrong message: As Colorado citizens are tightening their belts, government is opening its wallet. In the current environment, many business owners are lucky to keep the employees they have — yet the state is on a hiring spree.

State government can and must exercise more fiscal discipline. Until that happens, taxpayers would be wise to resist the siren song from the Capitol that “we need more of your money to provide basic services.” Is advertising for the state lottery a basic service? No, but this year’s budget included a $3 million increase (over last year’s expenditures) to run ads promoting the lottery. That’s not fiscal discipline.

Finally, on health care and transportation the legislature receives a grade of “incomplete.” In the case of health care, that’s probably a good thing, since the most significant proposals being circulated would have increased costs and made it easier to sue doctors.

On transportation, however, we need to act. As Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, proved with his “plus one” proposal, it’s possible to adjust state funding formulas to direct more money to roads and bridges — without raising taxes. I’m hopeful that this worthy proposal will get the discussion it deserves in the 2009 session.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve you at the Capitol this year.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.