2015 Legislative Session in Review

His tenure nearing end, Heath notes progress on jobs, education
Our 2015 legislative session ended on May 6, with mixed overall results but some sense of accomplishment.

This year, we had a split legislature, since Democrats controlled the House while Republicans controlled the Senate. Conventional wisdom in January suggested it might be a non-productive session characterized by partisan gridlock, and many bills certainly died on party-line votes. However, we worked well together on a number of key issues, and as of May 27, more than 250 bills had been signed into law with about a week-and-a-half to go before the signing deadline.

State Sen. Rollie Heath

State Sen. Rollie Heath

This newsletter will touch on some of the highlights and lowlights from the session. Since it’s impossible to squeeze everything from a 120-day session into a short letter, you can read any of the more than 600 bills introduced this year at www.leg.state.co.us.

K-12 testing reduced

One of our biggest successes this year was the passage of HB 15-1323, a bill that will reduce the amount of K-12 standardized testing and improve our overall assessment system. Concerns about the amount of testing led the General Assembly to form a Standards and Assessments Task Force in 2014, and parts of HB-1323 were derived from Task Force recommendations.

To me, this bill provided a great example of how government ought to work over an extended period of time. HB-1323 won’t satisfy everyone, but I believe it addressed many of the issues the Task Force identified, and will help us reduce testing while keeping performance and accountability at high levels.

Workforce package gets through

Colorado has done a great job in bouncing back from the Great Recession. Our unemployment rate is at the lowest point it’s been since before the recession, and average personal income has increased. But we know we can do better. This year, we introduced a package of job training and career education bills known as “Colorado Ready to Work,” and eight bills from the package passed, including:

  • Increasing Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (HB 15-1170): Creates a new collaborative readiness program, with a coordinator and involvement of relevant state agencies.
  • Innovative Industries Workforce Development Program (HB 15-1230): Provides incentives for companies in key industries, such as aerospace or bioscience, to hire apprentices or paid interns.
  • Pathways in Tech Early College High Schools, or P-TECH (HB 15-1270): P-TECH schools allow high school students focusing on STEM coursework (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to earn an associate’s degree while still enrolled in high school. This bill authorizes Colorado to set up a limited number of P-TECH schools.
  • Mobile Learning Labs (HB 15-1271): Mobile learning labs are basically large vehicles equipped with tools and hookups, which allows instructors to visit remote sites and teach classes there. This bill allows the state to fund these labs.
  • Career and Technical Education in Concurrent Enrollment (HB 15-1275): Allows qualifying internships and apprenticeships to become part of concurrent enrollment programs, where high school students can earn associate’s degrees while still enrolled in high school.
  • WORK Act (Skilled Worker Outreach, Recruitment, and Key Training Act) (HB 15-1276): Creates a grant program to help the state address its shortage of skilled workers in certain fields. Companies offering skilled worker training programs would be able to apply for the grants.

All things considered, this package should help many Coloradans compete for better jobs, and boost the overall talent level of our state’s workforce. We had very good bipartisan support for these bills, and I count Colorado Ready to Work as one of our top accomplishments of 2015.

Education in general

The overall Colorado economy has definitely improved in recent years, which means more state funding has been available for education. In short, we were able to add just less than $200 million to the state K-12 education budget, which includes $25 million for ongoing funding to address cuts made during the recession. If voters pass a ballot measure on recreational marijuana taxation in November, we will have another $40 million for K-12 facility construction. Also, this year’s budget boosted higher education funding by roughly $100 million. This is good news, but education in Colorado remains seriously underfunded, and it’s an area we can’t neglect if we hope to remain competitive as a state.

A very different year in the Senate

With a new majority in the Senate this year, a number of bills I could not support passed the Senate – bills that would have failed last year. Fortunately, these bills were defeated in the House. For just a few examples:

  • Rollback of renewable energy standards (SB 15-044): This bill would have decreased our renewable energy standards to 15 percent.
  • State takeover of federal lands (SB 15-039): One of two bills this year seeking to expand state jurisdiction over federally-controlled lands.
  • No permits for concealed weapons (SB 15-032): This bill would have eliminated permitting requirements for people to carry concealed weapons.
  • Private school vouchers (SB 15-045): This bill would have allowed the use of public money for private education.
  • Penalties for local control of oil and gas operations (SB 15-093): This bill would have required local governments to reimburse mineral rights owners, if an ordinance or regulation regarding oil and gas operations was found to reduce their market value.

Two more big issues for the future

  • Recreational marijuana taxation: Colorado voters have already approved taxing recreational marijuana sales twice, but it might take one more election to allow the state to use about $58 million in marijuana tax revenue. In 2015, we passed a bill that will refer a ballot measure on this issue to voters this November, and $40 million in funding for school construction is at stake.
  • TABOR in general: The economy is growing, and that’s nothing but positive news. However, this growth has helped us reach the point at which the state must give TABOR refunds, even though we have serious needs across the board and across the state. We might return about $70 million in the coming tax year, $120 million in the next year, and possibly more than $400 million in the following year. We have serious funding challenges as a state – notably in education, health care, and transportation – and I believe we need to have a serious conversation on whether giving rebates in the face of these needs is the best way to run a state.

Next year: my last session

It hardly seems possible, but the 2016 session will be my last as a Senator due to term limits. This means I will have one more chance to hopefully positively impact the future of this great state.

I have always deeply appreciated the privilege of serving you, my constituents. Over the past seven years, proposals from the people of Senate District 18 have become law, while others have helped us make good bills better with amendments. Please don’t hesitate to contact me over the summer with your thoughts, and we’ll see what we can accomplish together for Colorado’s future.

Have a great summer!

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