Updated 1:45 p.m. – Read the first education bills filed on our Ed Bill Tracker.

Legislative leaders today outlined their plans for 2012 legislature as the session opened for its 120-day run.

Education got only brief mention in those speeches, which focused mostly on the competing bundles of economic development and jobs bills each party is proposing.

Legislature 2012 logoNew House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino gave the largest nod to education, but it still was brief.

“You can be sure that we will fight for a public education, from preschool through grad school, that lifts up our students, prepares them for a challenging and changing world and provides them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Education is the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox,” the Denver Democrat said, mentioning his own struggles as a special education student.

House Speaker Frank McNulty didn’t mention education directly but noted with approval voter rejection last November of Proposition 103, which would have raised state taxes to fund schools and colleges. He also praised the value of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and said Republicans will fight for reinstatement of the senior homestead exemption, a $100 million property tax break for senior citizens.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative Democrats want continued suspension of that tax break to help balance the 2012-13 budget and avoid cuts to K-12 spending.

From now until May 9 (or a few days earlier if lawmakers can manage it), the weekday Capitol will be alive with legislators, lobbyists, aides, bureaucrats, reporters and citizens as the House and Senate work their way through up to about 600 bills and resolutions.

Economic development, the state budget and Medicaid are expected to be top issues – along with education, as always. (See Education News Colorado’s in-depth preview of expected 2012 education issues.)

Here are some key points about the legislative process as background for following the 2012 session:

The people

Every lawmaker has schools in his or her district and thinks they know something about education, but most of the heavy lifting gets done by the 20 members of the House and Senate education committees. (See list of House committee members here, and Senate members here.)

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs / File photo
Rep. Tom Massey, a Poncha Springs Republican and chair of House Education, is expected to be a central figure in education debates this year, both as the sponsor of major bills and the gatekeeper for bills in his committee. The full House has a 33-32 Republican majority, which is echoed by the 7-6 GOP margin on the committee.

Massey, a moderate with good lines of communication to all segments of the education community, is the committee’s swing vote on some issues.

On Senate Education chair Bob Bacon, a Fort Collins Democrat, holds a similar pivotal role, and his name also will be on some key pieces of education legislation this year.

This year is the last hurrah for both chairs, who will be leaving the Capitol after the session because of term limits.

Among other key figures on House Education is senior Democrat Rep. Judy Solano of Brighton, expected to be at the middle of testing debates this year.

(Term limits and other factors mean House Education will look very different next year. Solano is term limited, as is Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. Vice Chair Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, isn’t running for reelection. And two Lakewood representatives, Democrat Andy Kerr and Republican Ken Summers, are expected to face off in a Senate race this fall.)

Senate Education will be down to seven members (four Democrats and three Republicans) this session, as Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Golden, is going off the committee and not being replaced.

Democrats Mike Johnston of Denver, Rollie Heath of Boulder and Evie Hudak of Westminster have played key roles in past education debates, and Johnston especially is expected to be a major education player this session.

Republicans Keith King of Colorado Springs and Nancy Spence of Centennial, major voices on education issues for more than a decade, will be serving in their last session. King isn’t running again because legislative redistricting put him in the same district as another GOP incumbent, and Spence is term limited.

EdNews Logo
Let us do the work

Sure, you can read the bills, check the calendars and listen to committee hearings yourself, but nobody really has time for that except lobbyists.

You can efficiently track education news at the legislature with our coverage and services, including:

Daily coverage usually is provided in a single roundup story, making it easier for you to quickly track the day’s developments.

If you don’t subscribe to the Capitol eNewsletter, you can sign up here. At the start of the session we’ll probably send only one email a day, ramping up after the pace quickens.

Watch for new features as the session unfolds, including audio clips and tracking of legislators’ votes on key education bills.

Email coverage suggestions, news tips, questions and comments to Capital Editor Todd Engdahl.

The process

Once the legislative session gets rolling, bills follow a path tightly defined by the state constitution and legislative rules.

Every bill has to have at least one committee hearing. Even though there are no pocket vetoes by committee chairs, those leaders do control the scheduling of bills. While bills generally are assigned to committees based on their subject matter, the state affairs committees in each house are used as the “kill committees” and are the destinations for bills that a chamber’s leadership doesn’t want passed, regardless of a bill’s content.

Bills with price tags attached also must go through the appropriations committees in each house. Such bills can languish for weeks in appropriations until leadership teams agree on how much money is available for which bills.

Under the constitution, lawmakers have only one mandatory task each session – passing a balanced state budget. (As a practical matter, legislators also need to pass an annual school finance act to fund district budgets.) But lawmakers find plenty else to do, and 500-600 bills and resolutions typically are introduced in each session.

Daily calendars of legislative activity and journals that formally record each day’s actions are available on the General Assembly’s website, along with bill texts and legislator contract information.

Links to live video and audio broadcasts of floor sessions are available here. Audio of committee hearings is streamed live, and archived audio of past committee meetings is available this year for the first time.

The pace

The main opening-day events are speeches by majority and minority leaders in each house, long on high-minded rhetoric and calls for bipartisanship but mostly forgotten once the session gets rolling.

The ceremonial mood continues Thursday with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s State of the State speech, delivered to a joint session in a crowded House chamber.

Things won’t really get rolling until next week, and even then the first few weeks of a session can be leisurely.

There is an elaborate set of deadlines governing the introduction of bills and when they must be considered in each house. But exemptions from the deadlines are common, and the pace reaches a frantic pitch in April, when major bills and the proposed budget crowd the calendar, hours get longer and tempers start to fray.