Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content A look back: Tax breaks, school funds up in smoke; pot passes

TOM ROEDER Updated: May 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

DENVER • After two days of brinksmanship, lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Bill Ritter that would judge teachers and principals based on how their students perform.

It was the last big battle for the often-rancorous 2010 session of the General Assembly, ending a session that saw the lawmakers pave over a $1 billion budget shortfall, expand the reach of sales taxes and hammer out regulations for the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

“It’s been a very challenging session,” said term-limited Colorado Springs Democratic Rep. Michael Merrifield, as his last session in the state House came to a close. “It was the most challenging of the eight years I have served. It has not been fun.”

Merrifield led the effort to defeat SB191, which would allow school districts to fire teachers or principals whose students don’t show progress in the classroom.

It was a bill that showed deep divisions among Democrats while gaining strong support from Republicans.
Merrifield, chairman of the House Education Committee and a retired Coronado High School teacher, said the measure punishes teachers without offering incentives for improvement.

Colorado Springs Democratic Rep. Dennis Apuan said the bill will drive more conformity than quality.
“It is going to take creativity out of the classroom,” Apuan said.

“In spite of all of my best efforts, it’s going to become law,” Merrifield said.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted the bill to the governor’s desk, again with strong support from Republicans, who are in the minority in both chambers.

“It’s a great reform,” said GOP Sen. Mark Scheffel, whose district includes the northern reaches of El Paso County.

“It is groundbreaking in terms of its approach to changing the relationship between children, their teachers and their principals,” said Republican Rep. Carole Murray, whose district includes Teller County.

The General Assembly got a heavy dose of fiscal austerity early in the session, eliminating a string of sales tax exemptions on a range of items including candy, business software and energy used in manufacturing.

Those moves raised $130 million to help fill a shortfall driven by the recession. But that didn’t save popular programs, including public schools, from massive cuts. Schools alone were hit with a $260 million cut.

Colleges were cut, too, but gained the authority to raise tuition by as much as 9 percent per year in a bill passed this week that Gov. Bill Ritter is expected to sign.

Once the budget was hammered out, lawmakers focused on medical marijuana.

The House and Senate agreed to a plan that sets up state licenses for marijuana businesses and gives broad regulatory authority to local governments. Cities and counties could ban marijuana businesses outright.

Colorado Springs Republican Sen. Bill Cadman, who voted against the bill, said regulating marijuana may have been the General Assembly’s biggest challenge.

“It’s one of the most complicated issues I’ve seen in 10 years in the Legislature,” Cadman said.

Lawmakers are leaving Denver and hitting the campaign trail.

Republicans, looking for big gains, have dubbed the Democrats as “job killers” because of the additional sales taxes placed on businesses during the session.

“The Republicans are in the minority, so they don’t have to govern,” said Colorado Springs Democratic Sen. John Morse. “They can just lob grenades to see what happens.”

Democrats, hoping to hold the majority, have slammed the Republicans as “The Party of No” for the GOP’s obstinacy on issues such as taxes and the budget.

“From where I sit, people will be voting on jobs and the economy, and that’s not looking good for Democrats,” said Monument’s Republican Rep. Amy Stephens.

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