A House committee spent more than an hour Thursday on a bill that proposes to limit campaign contributions in school board races, but a vote was put off because the chairman had lost two of five Republican members, leaving Democrats with a temporary majority.

Arturo Jimenez and Beth McCann
Denver school board member Arturo Jimenez (left) and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver
The House State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee now has the bill on its calendar for Jan. 26. After Thursday’s session Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver and prime sponsor of House Bill 12-1067, said she expects to have a hard time getting the measure out of committee. She lost a similar bill on the House floor last year.

There currently are no limits on contributions to school board and Regional Transportation District candidates, and HB 12-1067 would set $500 contribution limits for individuals and political action committees and a $5,000 limit for small-donor committees. (The difference in amount parallels limits for contributions to legislative candidates.)

“It’s a matter of leveling the playing field for these candidates,” McCann told the committee. “The potential for abuse and improper influence is great when there are no limits.”

McCann then rattled off the names of some of bigger contributors in last year’s Denver Public Schools board races, which set a record for fundraising (see story).

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“This isn’t just a Denver problem,” McCann argued, noting large contributions in some Douglas and Jefferson county board races. “I believe this will be spreading across the state.”

Two Denver board members, Arturo Jimenez and Jeanne Kaplan, testified in favor of the bill. Jimenez, who won a narrow victory against well-funded opponent Jennifer Draper Carson, said average parents “don’t want to run because they see the outrageous amounts of money” being spent.

Kaplan said, “What we saw happen in these elections was pretty distasteful.” Kaplan and Jimenez opposed the “reform” slate of candidates that raised the large war chests last year.

Only one witness, Rick Coolidge of the Department of State, testified against the bill. He expressed concern that the bill’s proposed changes in reporting deadlines would further complicate the state’s already confusing deadlines for different kinds of offices and campaign committees.

State Affairs Republicans seemed skeptical of the bill.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, repeatedly said he thinks setting limits would just push campaign contributions into 527 and independent expenditure committees, where it’s harder to trace.

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, suggested to Jimenez that his victory proved that campaign spending isn’t decisive in a race.

Some Republicans also were unhappy with the higher limit for small-donor committees, a favorite tool of teachers unions, and a variety of other political groups.

After testimony ended, Chair Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, abruptly closed the hearing, saying he wanted to take the vote when all panel members were present. Two Republicans had left the meeting, leaving four Democrats and three Republicans in the room.

🔗Nibbling around the future of BEST

A discussion in the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon may have provided a preview of later debates this year over the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.

The subject came up during a briefing by Bill Ryan, director of the State Land Board, which manages 2.8 million acres of state lands that yield some $65 million a year in revenue. Nearly all of that goes to either the BEST program or to supplement state funding of school district operations.

One of the things Ryan stressed was that annual revenues can fluctuate – he called last year’s $120 million an aberration because of energy leasing in northeastern Colorado – and that mineral and energy revenues “depend on the sale of a depleting asset.”

By law BEST receives half the annual revenues from leases, rents and royalties on state lands. The program has about $29 million a year in payments on the lease-purchase agreements used to build and renovate schools. There’s a ceiling on $40 million on the amount BEST can obligate.

Those numbers have some legislators worried that a bad year for land revenues might force lawmakers to come up with other money to meet BEST obligations. There’s talk of legislation to scale back BEST.

“The BEST program is a wonderful program, but there are some consequences … if the land board was unable to pay the debt service,” Ryan said.

Some lawmakers also are concerned that the land board’s permanent fund has been flat at $600 million because revenues have been diverted to BEST and school spending. (Once revenues go into the permanent fund they can’t be spent; only interest generated by the fund can be used.)

“This is part of the choice that we are making,” said Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of Senate Education. “If we had our druthers we might like to augment this [the permanent fund] for the future. … We have not done that, for various reasons.” Bacon’s “various reasons” primarily are the state’s recent tight revenues, which have led lawmakers to tap whatever money they could to reduce the size of school budget cuts.

🔗Latest new bills

Three bills of possible interest were introduced Thursday. Two, Senate bills 12-082 and 12-084, relate to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The first one proposes to raise retirement ages for future PERA employees to match those of the Social Security system. PERA members generally can retire much earlier now, based on years of service, age and other factors. Both measures are sponsored by conservative Republicans and likely have no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Senate Bill 12-079 is a technical measure involving the Safe2tell school safety program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.