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Back in session

When Colorado lawmakers convene Wednesday for the 2013 state legislative session, plenty of work will await them.

The good news is that the session promises to be less acrimonious and more productive than it has been over the past few years, when state budget revenues suffered along with the downturn in the economy. The state General Assembly’s workload also stands to benefit from a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate: Republicans lost control of the House during the November 2012 elections.

With Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper also in place (with two years left in his term), the stage is set for the wheels of state government to turn more efficiently without any of the cross-party bickering we’ve seen in recent sessions.



Here’s a rundown of some of the expected session highlights, in no particular order:

Budget and K-12 education: Thanks to higher tax receipts than expected, revenue is estimated to be $160 million higher for the current fiscal year (2012-13) than was estimated in the fall. The additional money will carry over to the 2013-14 fiscal year and will be invested in a savings account for schools.




Overall, the short-term budget outlook for the next fiscal year seems relatively stable, especially with federal lawmakers reaching a deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, a crisis that threatened revenues allotted to states. The Governor’s Office projects a general-fund budget that’s $387 million larger than last year’s budget, and $201 million of that increase would be earmarked for K-12 education. Hickenlooper also is suggesting a 1.5 percent pay increase (at a cost of $27 million) for state employees, whose salaries have been stagnant for four years.

Investments in education and state workers are steps in the right direction that can benefit the state as a whole – we hope lawmakers see it that way, as well, and find the money to support this year’s plan.

Long-term obstacles to funding K-12 education remain. As Aspen’s new state representative, Millie Hamner, has told us, the General Assembly needs to reform the state’s school finance act as well as work toward a repeal of the voter-mandated Taxpayer Bill of Rights, also known as TABOR, which limits local government growth through tax increases.

With TABOR in place, it’s hard for local governments to come up with extra money to support local school systems. Aspen voters in November worked around this limitation by passing a referendum that raised the sales tax rate by 0.3 percent to help the local school district with future funding needs.

Higher education: This is another long-term problem area. The state general fund for higher education has dropped from $705 million in 2009 to $513 million this year. Tuition increases were implemented to compensate for those losses. Hickenlooper’s budget calls for a spending increase, but it’s unclear whether much can be done. Meanwhile, enrollment in the state’s colleges and universities is 35 percent higher than it was 12 years ago.

Marijuana: Voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 64, which calls on the state to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Several bills are expected to pop up that will address local government regulation on growing, selling and distributing marijuana. We would advocate a system that’s balanced across the state and does not allow counties and municipalities to circumvent the will of the statewide referendum.

Gun control: In the wake of the shooting inside an Aurora movie theater in July that resulted in 12 deaths and 58 injuries, as well as last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six adults dead, many Coloradans have called for stricter gun-control measures. A legislative report says that the 2013 session likely will feature legislation dealing with assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as bills dealing with guns on college campuses.

Capital punishment: The same report notes that legislation to ban capital punishment in Colorado is expected. “This will be an emotional and potentially divisive issue, even within political parties,” the report states.

Civil unions: The topic flared up in the waning days of the 2012 session. The legislative summary says that a bill allowing civil unions will be introduced in 2013 and will likely pass.

To express your concerns about upcoming General Assembly matters, send an email to the lawmakers who represent Pitkin County: state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, millie.hamner.house@state.co.us; and state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, gail.schwartz.senate@state.co.us.


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