Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, June 11, 2020

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, wipes away tears as she describes the cuts to the budget and to K-12 education, June 11, 2020.

The School Finance Act — the most partisan in more than 20 years — passed the state Senate Thursday on a 20-15 vote. It picked up one "yes" vote from the Republican side, from Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, along with the chamber's 19 Democrats.

The solitary "yes" vote repeats what happened earlier this week in the House, when one Republican — Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron — was the only member of his caucus to vote for the bill.

The annual school finance bill is usually a bipartisan affair, with sponsorship from both sides of the aisle and plenty of bipartisan votes.

Not this year.

As was the case in the House, the bill's attempt to raise mill levys to a uniform 27 mills statewide caused Republicans to back away.

Under the bill, each district would hike their mills to 27, unless the district is fully funded without additional state dollars at a lower mill, which is a form of property taxes.

The bill allows districts that have de-Bruced to keep their mills at the level they were at prior to when voters approved the de-Brucing. That's when voters allow a school district to keep all the revenue it collects, even dollars that exceed the district's TABOR revenue limits.

For the four districts that haven't de-Bruced — District 11 in Colorado Springs, Cherry Creek, Harrison in El Paso County and Steamboat Springs — the bill allows them to go to the lesser of 27 mills or "the number of mills levied in the preceding property tax year, or the number of mills that generates an amount that does not exceed" the TABOR revenue limit.

In order to avoid a big property tax hike in 2020-21, school districts would have to issue tax credits. The General Assembly would have to fund those tax credits in succeeding years, a potential cost of $1 billion. It the state lacks that revenue, those tax hikes would go into effect.

Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs pointed out that multiple bills have been passed that increase new spending in other areas. That sends a message to students and teachers that they are not the most important thing we could be doing. One thing that has brought both sides together is the recognition of the importance of public schools, Hill said. 

Education "is our top priority," he said. "We have abandoned that notion in favor of other projects...Our actions have not followed our words." 

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said lawmakers could do better for the students of Colorado. He's also opposed based on the bill's section on the mill levy equalization, which he called a "Trojan Horse" and end-run around the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights that moves authority for approving tax increases into the the hands of the General Assembly, he said. 

Democrats, including Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, showed the wear and tear of cutting $3.3 billion out of the budget, which included a $612.1 million cut to K-12. Tearfully, the JBC member said the bill will increase the debt to K-12. "We couldn't not touch education," she said, wiping tears away. "We face the worst budget disaster in history...it was a bad year for everyone...we did the best we could. We produced a balanced budget. We saved the reductions to education until we didn't have any other option."

The bill was amended by the Senate, so it heads back to the House for concurrence.

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