The Colorado General Assembly has embarked on its 2013 session, a four-month whirlwind that will address thorny issues which include education funding, civil unions and gun control.
And in the middle of all that will be newly elected state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Democrat representing South Jeffco’s recently redrawn District 22.
Kerr finds himself in a somewhat familiar position in the Senate, as he will serve on the chamber’s finance and education committees. During his 6½years as state representative for House District 26, Kerr was a member of the House’s education and finance committees.
Kerr sees those two sectors of Colorado as being intimately intertwined. Without an educated workforce, Colorado’s economy cannot expand, he believes.
“We have to be making sure Colorado is a business-friendly state but also has a world-class education system at the K-12 level and the higher-education level,”Kerr said.
A high school civics teacher with Jeffco Public Schools, Kerr said the most important issue for him this session is strengthening a public education system that has been cut to the bone.
Kerr won a highly contested race for the newly redrawn District 22, defeating his Republican challenger, former state representative Ken Summers, by a little more than 3,000 votes.
When his campaign ramped up last summer, Kerr said politicians and state residents were focused on how to improve the job market. Yet by the end of the summer, another issue had gained prominence.
“People were still talking about jobs, but education had risen up to the same level. Also, people were talking about how education impacts jobs," Kerr said. “People from across the political spectrum said, ‘We’ve done enough cuts to education; now is the time that we make sure we’re funding our education system.’”
Kerr believes that as the state begins to recover from the recession and revenues increase as projected, the legislature needs to focus on restoring funding to K-12 and higher education.
"With balancing the budget and having had two recessions in one decade, Colorado's budget was cut to the bone. And the biggest cut was to K-12. I think that’s where we need to look first.”Kerr said. “I don’t see the partisan breakdown there. We’ve had to make the tough decisions over the last few years, and I think we’ll work across the aisle to make the tough decisions as we move forward.”
Along with restoring funding to the education system, Kerr said the state must look at restoring funding to programs that directly impact the lives of Coloradans, especially the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Kerr specifically mentioned “the cuts that go right to the people and right to human beings, some of our cuts in human services.”
Kerr spoke out recently when the Jeffco commissioners cut funding to three social-services nonprofits in the county.
"A lot of our most vulnerable population are supported and helped in Colorado, especially the very young and the very old, and the (services provided) tend to be county-based, but funds are coming from state and federal sources," he said. "Nonprofits help deliver those services. That’s what was so heartbreaking about the cuts that happened a month ago. It was with those nonprofits that we’ve built up a trust and we built a relationship."
A divided district
Kerr believes his ability to work across party lines won him election in his politically divided Senate district. The seat was open after reapportionment left Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, no longer living in the district.
The newly redrawn district has an almost even split between registered Republicans, Democrats and independents.
"The 6½years I spent down here in the House, my House district was fairly divided as well, and I always won election by fairly comfortable margins. It means there's a lot of people in the middle and on the right that supported me,”Kerr said. "The electorate of Senate District 22 took a look at the voting record and saw it's not too far to the left and it's not too far to the right. It fits a district like Senate District 22."
Kerr touts his accessibility to constituents —by posting his cell-phone number on his website and fliers, and holding regular town hall meetings —as another reason he won in such a politically divided district.
"People respond to that, when you're accessible and you'll listen to them," he said. "We may not agree on very much at the end of the day, but people know I'll listen to them."
In-state tuition for immigrants
Kerr might be listening to complaints from his more conservative constituents on several upcoming issues, including a bill allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, gun control legislation and a bill granting in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants.
Kerr believes there is common ground on all those issues among liberals and conservatives. He points to conversations he’s had with Republican businessmen who support giving children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.
"They were very upset it became a partisan issue because we’re talking about the economic wellness of our state. We’re talking about opportunity for some of our top students and aspiring Americans. You put all that together, and it makes the decision pretty easy."
On the need for more firearms safety, Kerr says many areas exist where both sides of the debate can meet in the middle, such as using more precise data for background checks.
Kerr said he had been approached by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office about bringing a bill to the Senate floor to update the background-check database.
"It would help make sure we have real-time data from the (Colorado Bureau of Investigation) to run the background checks. Right now that data is only shared once every six months. It’s delivered on a CD-ROM from the Judiciary (Department) to CBI," Kerr said. “Both sides of the fence on this issue support this idea. It is 2013; let's go ahead and use the technology we have available.”
Kerr seemed confident that a civil-union bill will be passed by the legislature this session. Last year, that legislation died in the Republican-controlled House. The Democrats now control both chambers of the legislature.
“I was a co-sponsor last year and a co-sponsor this year, and I do believe that civil unions will sail through over the next few weeks,”he said.
Contact Ramsey Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.