A bill that would have funneled end-of-year state surpluses into special accounts for K-12 and higher education was killed Wednesday by majority Democrats on the House Finance Committee.

But the 6-5 vote didn’t come until after those Democrats went to substantial lengths to compliment the GOP sponsor and stress their support for improved school funding.

House Bill 15-1058 would have put 70 percent of what’s called the annual general fund surplus in the State Education Fund and 30 percent into a higher education account. The surplus – the amount can vary widely year to year – is what’s left over after the state pays its bills, the legislature makes mid-year budget adjustments, and the state controller balances the books every year.

The K-12 transfers would have continued until the negative factor – the state’s $890 million school funding shortfall – had been eliminated.

Comparing the negative factor to an unpaid credit card balance, sponsor Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, said, “Until we get that credit card paid off … this is the responsible way to use the surplus. … We have a very large debt to K-12 education.”

He and other Republicans called it a first step toward broader and more permanent improvements in school funding. “We can’t do everything at once,” noted Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County.

Questioned by a fellow Republican, Becker acknowledged it was hard to estimate how much money the bill would raise. “This could be as much as $45 million for this year and as little as $20 million.”

Democratic committee members voiced plenty of objections: lawmakers can do this already if they want, the bill would limit the flexibility of future legislatures, and a bigger, more permanent school finance fix is needed, not an incremental step.

“Our priority as a legislature needs to be coming up with a permanent fix to the negative factor,” said Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder. (The two Beckers aren’t related.)

What she and the other Democrats didn’t mention was that a permanent school funding fix – the $1 billion tax increase known as Amendment 66 – was offered to voters in 2013 and soundly defeated.

Witnesses supporting the bill included three rural district superintendents from northeastern Colorado and representatives of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association. (The CEA gave contributions to most if not all of the committee Democrats last year but to none of the Republicans.)

Before the vote was taken, committee members spent half an hour on the peculiar legislative politeness ritual known as “explaining my vote.” That involved Democrats complimenting Becker for introducing the bill while explaining why they were going to vote no. Committee Republicans complimented Becker and explained why they were voting yes.

If the bill had been passed by the finance committee, it would have gone next to the House Education Committee. It perhaps was assigned by House Democratic leadership first to finance to avoid the political embarrassment of Democrats on the education committee voting no.

The serious discussion of school finance in 2015-16 probably won’t unfold until late March, after state revenue forecasts are updated.

Fields considering minority teacher legislation

Rep. Rhonda Fields said Wednesday she’s considering legislation designed to encourage more minority students to become teachers.

Fields talked with Chalkbeat Colorado following a Capitol briefing on a new report, “Keeping Up with the Kids: Increasing Minority Teacher Representation in Colorado.”

The Aurora Democrat was a prime sponsor of the 2014 law that commissioned the study, which was presented to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees.

Fields said she doesn’t have a specific proposal yet in mind but is interested in doing something that would encourage “bridge” programs in community colleges that would help direct minority students toward teacher prep programs. She said she’s also looking into way to interest minority students in teaching as early as their middle school years.

The study found that only 10 percent of state teachers are minorities, compared to 43 percent of students, and that Colorado lags behind the nation in the percentage of minority teachers. (Read our story and see the full report here.)

The study recommended that the legislature consider creating a “multi-million dollar” program of state grants to minority teacher recruitment and retention programs. Committee members had lots of questions about the report, but no legislator asked about or touched on the idea of spending that kind of money.

(In a First Person commentary posted on Chalkbeat Wednesday, UCD Professor Margarita Bianco writes about the importance of having more students of color become teachers.)

Fishing for BEST funding

Advocates of the Building Excellent Schools Today program have been hunting around for more money to fund the effort, given that BEST has hit the ceiling on the $40 million it is allowed to spend every year to repay the lease-purchase agreements that have been used to build or renovate dozens of schools around the state.

The program gets half of the annual revenues earned on state school lands, and the issue came up Wednesday when the House and Senate education committees were briefed by Bill Ryan, director of the State Land Board.

Sen. Mike Johnston tried to draw Ryan out on the issue of how to raise more funds for BEST, but Ryan’s answer was cautious. “Our job is to earn the revenue,” he said, but decisions on how to spend it are up the legislature.

He also noted that revenues from school lands are volatile because they “are so linked to commodity prices and production.” Much of the land board revenue comes from oil and gas leases and royalties.

Citing the recent dramatic drop in oil prices, Ryan said, “We do see a steep drop off coming in our revenues.”

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, said the coming revenue decline worries him and then suggested looking into how to increase interest income from land board’s permanent fund.

Ryan said state law currently requires the permanent fund be invested in low risk – and therefore low-interest – securities. Johnston suggests easing those limits, and Ryan responded, “That would be a good alternative to pursue.”