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2012 Session

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Letís Rethink Our Spending Priorities

April 25, 2012

Last summer sixty-five percent of Coloradans including myself voted against a ballot initiative that would have increased taxes to pay for K-12 education. My opposition to the measure didn't reflect a view that schools are overfunded, but rather that taxes are too high. I suspect that many of the other 662,745 Coloradans who joined me in opposing that tax increase also share that view.

One of the consistent priorities I've fought for throughout my legislative career has been to shift the legislature's focus away from continually increasing taxes and spending to instead considering how to best prioritize existing revenue. This applies to K-12 funding: instead of increasing taxes to fund education, why don't we think of better ways to prioritize our current spending?

A ballot measure I am sponsoring this year does just that. Simply put, it will temporarily take half of the lottery proceeds that support open space and conservation projects about $56 million per year and send it to the State Education Fund, a savings account for K-12. The remaining 50 percent of lottery proceeds will continue to support parks and open space. This diversion will only last 5 years, after which the state will return to the status quo of sending 100 percent of lottery proceeds to support outdoor recreation projects.

The recession has hit K-12 education funding pretty hard: after years of receiving increases in funding each year, schools suddenly took a 7.6 percent cut in the 2010-11 school year. Funding for schools continued to fall short in subsequent years, the result being that state and local governments will spend about $600 less on a high school senior in the 2012-13 school year than was spent in that student's freshman year.

Sending an additional $56 million a year to the State Education Fund may not sound like a lot, but adding this amount to the School Finance Act would have increased funding per student by about $70 this year which works out to an additional $3 million for the Poudre, Thompson, and Estes Park school districts. This temporary change in our spending formula could give schools a boost in funding to help offset the recent cuts. This can be accomplished, not by raising taxes, but by using our existing revenue in a way that better reflects our priorities as a state.

As I stated before, this issue is not about whether funding for open space and conservation projects is a worthy use of taxpayer money, but whether state spending on K-12 education is currently a higher priority than spending money to build trails and purchase more open space. The proceeds of the lottery last year totaled $114 million, almost all of which went to support state parks, conservation, and open space projects. These projects have enjoyed a consistent and increasing amount of support from the lottery over the 20 years that it has been in place. Schools, on the other hand, have seen some steep cuts over the past few years and depend on revenue streams that are unlikely to rebound quickly. I believe that voters will agree with my assessment that funding for K-12 is a higher priority at the present time than purchasing open space and building new trails.

The appeal of the measure I'm sponsoring is that the question of competing priorities will be left up to the voters. Since the voters approved the original funding stream for open space and parks projects, they must be the ones to amend it. This measure, if the legislature agrees to put it on the ballot, will mark a real shift in thinking from the usual list of tax increases voters see each year. Families and businesses that are faced with tight budgets think in terms of prioritizing spending isn't it time for our government to operate the same way?
Senator Lundberg represents Larimer County in the Colorado Senate.



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Back to the Drawing Board with Dolls and Crayons?

March 2012

In July of last year, the Child Care Division of Colorado's Department of Human Service produced a 98-page set of rule changes that would tell private child care providers how many crayons, paint brushes and toy phones each classroom must have. DHS also wanted to dictate how many minutes of each day a child may spend on a computer or watching television. The proposals were widely criticized as unwarranted micromanagement and as "a nanny state on steroids."

The controversy has faded from the public spotlight, but the threat of child care regulatory overreach remains. In fact, newly proposed legislation, SB130, may unwittingly provide further impetus and some legitimacy to the bureaucrats' regulatory ambitions.

When last July's child care controversy erupted, the Governor publicly rebuked some of the more extreme proposals, and even the Denver Post urged the Child Care Division to "take a timeout." The head of the agency successfully defused the controversy by promising to take a fresh look. In February, the head of the division that produced the controversial draft regulations was replaced. The agency now says that the revised rules will not be ready for public comment until November.

We certainly hope that the new review under new leadership will produce a more sensible and sober crafting of new licensing standards for child care centers. Yet, it is fair to ask if the Department of Human Services learned the right lessons from this fiasco. There are good reasons for both parents and lawmakers to remain vigilant.

In testimony at a February 16 Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing at the Capitol, an agency spokesperson declined to say that the "quality standards" proposed in July exceeded the agency's authority or strayed too far from traditional standards regarding the health and safety of children. It appears those July proposals are now being revised not because they are intrusive and ridiculous but because of public controversy. In fact, in conversations with lawmakers in early February, agency officials said those standards were "based on a higher level of quality than the agency thinks is possible at this time." Translated, this means the rules that provoked controversy last July are not dead, they are merely in hibernation.

But it's not only the proposed new rules that raise policy questions. The agency has a reputation for reinterpreting old rules in seemingly arbitrary ways as well.

Two private child care centers in northern Colorado testified at the February 16 legislative hearing that the child care agency has altered the standards for the religious exemption, changes which put their programs in jeopardy. Montessori schools are now lobbying for legislation, HB1276, to establish clear guidelines for granting of waivers for certain instructional materials and a more equitable appeals process on agency actions.

These examples and other events strongly suggest the Child Care Division has grown fond of arbitrary rule changes that impose unwarranted hardships and unexpected costs on private child care providers.

We all want high quality child care for children in a safe and healthy environment. The problem is that the term "quality" is so elastic that it can cover almost any standard a creative bureaucratic mind can dream up. Complicating the picture is the agency's appetite for federal grant dollars, which only come with federal strings attached.

If the quest for "high quality" is not restrained and balanced against other equally valid goals, like innovation and affordability, we run the risk of reducing access to child care services for low and middle income families. Regardless of the dreams and aspirations of child care "experts," not every family can afford a Cadillac or Lexus in child care quality. Thousands of families need access to Ford and Chevrolet quality services that adhere to reasonable health and safety standards.

The bottom line is that the state should be very cautious when contemplating new licensing standards that go beyond health and safety, especially when those quality standards drive up costs significantly. What purpose is served by reducing options for low-income families? That only makes sense if you want to drive private child care centers out of business in order to create demand for taxpayer-subsidized child care services. Is that something the state can afford when state Medicaid expenditures are projected to increase at 9% annually through 2025?

Governor Hickenlooper was obviously embarrassed last July by the controversy created by overzealous bureaucrats. Let's hope he will keep a watchful eye on where the state's child care agency is headed after it is restructured and expanded as the Office of Early Childhood and Youth Development. Our child care bureaucrats need to be held accountable accountable not to "national experts," but to the parents and taxpayers of Colorado.

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Proposed Parental Divorce Bill Generates Passionate Discussion

January 6, 2012

The Parental Divorce Reduction Act is legislation that would require six hours of instruction on how divorce affects the children, and a waiting period of about eight months before a married couple who have underage children can proceed with the divorce process currently proscribed by Colorado law. Exceptions for this requirement would include cases of physical abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, and long term incarceration of a spouse. (For more information, see DivorceReform.info.)

Research has shown that in many cases divorce pushes broken families into poverty, children into depression, and many other long-term difficulties. It has even been shown that the life span of children of divorced families is several years shorter than average life spans. The hope of this legislation was to give couples every opportunity to find a way to stay out of divorce court.

The reaction to just the prospect of introducing this bill has been extraordinary. Many have applauded its intention and the effect it could have had on their lives and our culture. One Denver TV station ran a story on the bill which included a mom who had the courage to say on camera it might have helped her in a divorce she had endured.

Others have reacted in the opposite way. They have told me their personal stories of how they had already exhausted every avenue, for the sake of their kids, and now, faced with the reality of a divorce, just needed to get it over with and move on. More time and instruction would just be more government invasion into a private, and very painful part of their personal lives.

A few expressed a concern about legislating "morality." This question is problematic, as every decision we make at the capitol has a moral component. We the People, through the legislature, declare many actions to be right, and create laws to condone, or even encourage those actions. Other actions we declare wrong, and create penalties for them. We legislate "morality" all the time.

Some simply asked: Is this the role of government? This is a very legitimate question. I ask it about every bill I carry, and on every bill on which I vote. My first reaction to this issue was to say that the overwhelming evidence of the positive contributions marriage has to our culture, to individuals, and to the children created by those marriages makes this a legitimate matter of state government concern. We already have laws establishing a process for all divorces, include a minimum 90 day timeline. Where children are involved more caution seems to have merit.

Yet, I fully acknowledge that those who do not consider the concepts in this bill to be within the legitimate scope of government can provide an effective argument.

Of all the bills I have carried, or contemplated carrying, just the idea of this bill has evoked the biggest response I have ever seen. This is my tenth session in the legislature. I can see when the prospect of a bill becoming law in the current session is slim. At times, when I believe it would still be good to push the discussion, I will run the bill anyway. This is a legitimate part of the debate and discussion of a legislative session. Such efforts can eventually change opinions and yield positive results. My efforts for a rainy-day fund, as an example have, I believe, accomplished that objective.

For my part, I have become much more aware of the complexities and difficulties of divorce. I trust all who have been a part of this debate will come away with a greater respect for the institution of marriage and better understand the risks associated with divorce. I pray we will all have an even greater compassion for children, and their parents who are caught in the painful grip of a divorce.

Much of what has been presented by those who disagreed with the bill with articulate and respectful dialogue has merit. I am still committed to looking for ways to address the significant problems associated with divorce, but it will take much more time and deliberation than the upcoming session will allow. I have decided to not introduce the bill during this session.

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