Home stretch will be heated: Education, pot rules in 2nd half of legislature

DENVER — The 2013 session of the Colorado Legislature has been anything but boring.

During the first half of this year’s session there have been long hours of debates, plenty of political saber-rattling and numerous public rallies over several controversial issues:

■ Same-sex couples are rejoicing because a long-sought bill to allow them to enter into civil unions is expected to receive final approval this week.

■ Half a dozen Democrat-sponsored gun-control measures have had little trouble in recent days getting the votes they need despite heated objections from Republicans.

■ And as of Friday, a bill to lower college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants received final legislative approval and was sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it.

Starting this week, the second half of the 120-day session kicks in, and it’s promising to be just as contentious:

■ Education funding reform and a possible ballot measure calling for increased taxes to pay for it is expected to be introduced soon.

■ Elimination of the death penalty at a time when a death-row inmate has run out of appeals and a possible governor’s clemency is on the horizon.

■ Implementing regulations for Amendment 64, which legalized recreational use of marijuana in the state, will go to a special select committee to iron out how it would work.

■ And legislative budget writers may have to cut thousands of dollars, if not millions, from the state’s annual spending plan because Congress has yet to deal with the so-called sequester and automatic cuts in the federal budget.

“We are working with our staff to monitor what the impact is, and taking very seriously what the impact will be on the budget,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “We’re trying to figure out what, if anything, we need to do to offset cuts that will happen in our state departments. It’s difficult to know where that will be, but we know that human services, unemployment and the Department of Transportation will have an impact. We don’t know the magnitude.”

Lawmakers also are awaiting the results of the next revenue forecast, which will be released later this month. Recent ones have shown a steady increase in state revenues, but uncertainty in the economy, including from sequestration, could hamper that expected recovery.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are planning to introduce two school funding measures: one based on what the state can pay for and another on what lawmakers hope to afford.

By law, the only thing the Legislature actually is required to do when it meets each year is approve a spending plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Along with that is a plan to fund public education, called the School Finance Act.

A handful of Democrats, however, plan to introduce a second bill that changes how schools are funded, a measure that would be contingent on passage of a ballot question this fall to raise taxes to pay for it.

The wording for either has yet to be made public.

Like the budget, other pending issues are in flux depending on a few outside sources.

Lawmakers also are awaiting a bill to do away with the state’s death penalty, something Democrats have talked about since winning back a majority in the Colorado House.

That comes at a time when one of three people on Colorado’s death row, Nathan Dunlap, has exhausted his legal appeals. He’s expected to ask for a governor’s pardon, but Gov. John Hickenlooper has not said what he would do, where he stands on the death penalty or whether the issue should be placed before voters.

At the same time, the marijuana measure, which also has yet to be introduced, comes at a time when pressure is being placed on how U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department should respond to pot legalization in Colorado and Washington.

All of those issues have overshadowed the one issue both sides of the aisle have repeatedly vowed to keep in the forefront: boosting jobs and the economy.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they haven’t forgotten those promises.

“We haven’t lost sight of why our friends and neighbors sent us here,” said House Minority Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “Our economic recovery remains fragile, and we know that it is still more important than ever for lawmakers to do everything in their power to provide people with opportunity for growth and success.”



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