Hundreds crowd Capitol for hearing on sex ed changes

A hearing for a sex-education bill drew a crowd that filled the Colorado Capitol's largest hearing room as well as two overflow rooms and the hall outside on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

House Bill 1032, the comprehensive sex education bill that drew hundreds of angry conservatives to the Colorado Capitol in protest, may fall victim to what happened last week when the House and Senate agreed on a $70 million boost to transportation.

The bill got its first hearing in the House Health and Insurance Committee on Jan. 30 and by Feb. 19 was on its way to the Senate. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved it on Feb. 28 and sent it on to Senate Appropriations, along with its $1 million general fund price tag.

And there it has sat ever since. Senate Appropriations has a full calendar Friday morning, but HB 1032 isn't on it.

Committee Chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada explained to Colorado Politics the problems that the sex ed bill, and any other bill with a general-fund cost of more than $25,000, has in the waning days of the 2019 session.

On Thursday, the Joint Budget Committee, which will act as the conference committee on the Long Appropriations Bill -- Senate Bill 207 -- will have to figure out where in the couch cushions they will find the $70 million that House and Senate leaders agreed to last week as a one-time boost to transportation.

That problem has been exacerbated by a revenue forecast released last month that dropped revenue expectations by $250 million, and an agreement to fund the $175 million price tag for free full-day kindergarten, the top legislative priority for Gov. Jared Polis.

That bill -- House Bill 1262 -- cleared the House Education Committee Tuesday on a unanimous vote. Its Democratic prime sponsor, Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango, told Colorado Politics Wednesday that she hopes the bill will be in House Appropriations on Friday, and up for a second-reading debate later in the day. That could mean a final House vote as soon as Monday.

One of the things that happen during the legislature's budget debate is that the Joint Budget Committee sets aside a pot of money for each chamber's appropriations committee, to be spent on bills that haven't made it all the way through the process. And the negotiations for that pot of money can be intense, with dozens of bills (and sponsors) seeking those limited dollars.

This year, the money is more limited than usual. Each chamber has about $20 million in general funds for the bills sitting in the appropriations committees right now. That's why a lot of bills wind up sitting for weeks or even months in appropriations, waiting to see what money is left.

As Zenzinger explained it, the bills on Friday's Senate Appropriations calendar are either cash-funded, require a nominal amount of general fund support (as in, for example, $20,000 versus $1 million), or are for renewal of agencies through the sunset process, which don't require additional dollars but must be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee because they obligate the state government in years beyond the budget. She also didn't rule out going after the set-aside money to fund the changes in the Long Bill, including the transportation agreement.

Colorado public school districts are not required to offer sex education at all under current law, and that would still be the case under HB 1032. However, under the measure, if they did offer sex ed, the curriculum would have to be comprehensive and not limited to an abstinence-only approach.

The bill also spells out guidelines for instruction around LGBTQ relationships, consent and the definition of healthy relationships.

Conservative and religious groups opposed to the measure in general called for decisions about sex-ed curriculum to be made at the local level.

But while the sex ed bill might fail to pass this year if Senate Appropriations decides the money isn't there (and it's a possibility, according to Zenzinger), Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose -- a co-prime sponsor of the measure -- warns its opponents that a future version may be worse. 

Coram of Montrose said he got on the bill, which he said he doesn't like, in order to act in the role of peacekeeper. The bill had faced contentious opposition and hours of testimony in its trip through the House, but that was tamped down somewhat in the Senate after Coram worked out amendments with Colorado Christian University.

To those who oppose it now, "you may like it a lot less" in the future, he said Wednesday. If the bill fails this year and comes back the next, he told Colorado Politics he's out and won't sponsor it again.

The sex ed bill isn't alone in the waiting game: More than 100 bills are currently on hold in either House or Senate Appropriations committees and will not be resolved until after the JBC finishes up the work on the Long Bill.

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