Colorado ASSET Act Signed Into Law

Photo by Colorado House Democrats

UPDATE: FOX 31's Eli Stokols:

“It’s perseverance,” [former Rep. Val] Vigil told FOX31 Denver afterward. “You know when you truly believe in an issue, you don’t give it up.”

…Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a former teacher and principal, described the despair of one of his former students who graduated high school only to watch state lawmakers, for the last three years, defeat legislation aimed at making college more affordable for undocumented students.

“That student right now is working in a fast food restaurant, waiting for the chance to fulfill his dreams of one day becoming an engineer,” Johnston said. “Well, today, we’re here to tell you that the doors are open and the dream is alive.” [Pols emphasis]


Another long-sought goal achieved by the 69th Colorado General Assembly, reports Huffington Post's Matt Ferner:

Undocumented immigrant students in Colorado can celebrate today — a bill that grants undocumented students in-state college tuition rates was signed into Colorado law by Gov. John Hickenlooper today.

Colorado now joins thirteen other states to allow undocumented immigrant students who graduate from state high schools to attend college at an in-state tuition rate. According to The Associated Press, some of Colorado's undocumented students had been paying more than three times higher than the rate in-state students pay.

A congratulatory statement from Sen. Mark Udall:

Mark Udall, who has been a vocal advocate for comprehensive and accountable immigration reform, welcomed the signing into law of Colorado's ASSET bill — legislation that secures fair tuition rates for students who attend at least three years of high school in Colorado, regardless of their immigration status. Udall said Colorado's leadership on this issue should spur Congress to follow suit and pass common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act.

"Colorado is leading the way to ensure that every Colorado student, regardless of where they come from or their immigration status, has equal access to opportunity. I am proud to stand with Gov. Hickenlooper and my colleagues in the Colorado General Assembly in welcoming this important milestone, the signing of the ASSET Bill, and what it means for high-achieving high school graduates and our future economic growth," Udall said. "I will take Colorado's example with me to Washington and continue fighting for a balanced, bipartisan immigration-reform proposal. I stand with business, religious, agricultural and labor leaders — and Coloradans of all backgrounds — when I say the time has come for Congress to set partisanship aside and follow suit. We must pass comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act."

We'll round up more statements and coverage as they come in.

Sen. Vicki Marble: The New Gold Standard For Crazy?

We get a lot of email newsletter updates from Colorado legislators in both parties. Most of them are mundane and loaded with canned rhetoric about the legislative session, in between event announcements and other routine constituent communications. We've talked this year about, for example, false statements made in legislative communications about gun safety bills, but controversy in these newsletters can safely be considered the exception, not the rule.

Having said that, the exceptions to this rule are generally highly notable. Back in 2006, a GOP legislator named Jim Welker made headlines for his immoderate newsletters, forwarding an article that claimed "President Bush is not to blame for the rampant immorality of blacks" following Hurricane Katrina among other offensive opinions. Welker's embarrassing episode led to tighter standards among Republicans, at least for a few years, for watching what they say in printed public communications.

Enter freshman Sen. Vicki Marble, who Friday evening may have sent the most unhinged rant we've seen from a Colorado legislator since Sen. Dave Schultheis' infamous remarks about hoping babies get AIDS–and not in a forwarded article either. These are her own words:

It seems Democrats will do anything to control the way our children learn, live, and even how they act in intimate relationships. [Pols emphasis] I would like to reference SB13-260 concerning the financing of public schools. This 27-page Bill includes the “Obama Pre-School Equip” program for four-year olds. It increases pre-school enrollment at a cost of $11.7 million and establishes reporting requirements for private pre-school providers. School districts do not approve of this and feel their programs are adequate for pre-school needs. This Bill contradicts Article IX, Section 2 (2012) of the Colorado Constitution which says the state "shall provide a system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously.”

Democrats are now referring to our children as property of “whole communities.” Last week, Melissa Harris-Perry, a touted professor at Tulane University endorsed the concept of human ownership. 

Harris-Perry stated stated that as a society, “we have to break through our [America’s] kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it is everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.” She then argued that the problem is, “we haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our [government’s] children.” To have a “collective notion” of ownership over our children is the very reason Democrats have dictated our parental rights through their party-line passage of perverse bills of this sort this Legislative Session.

Democrats have arrogantly assumed the role of demanding that they know best by controlling every aspect of our children’s lives. Have we as parents been devalued to the point that our government sees us purely as breeders in the process of raising our children? [Pols emphasis]

Hitler once said, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” He also said, “This new Reich will give its youth to no one, but will, itself, take youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing.” Under Communism our children, our property, and what we produce belongs to the state.

Under Communism our children, our property, and what we produce belongs to the state…

Democrats believe that the government is the solution. Republicans believe that the government can never be the sole solution in a republic. Our children are not government property…

First of all, anytime you are considering quoting Adolf Hitler to make a point…don't. Seriously. If you think you need a few Hitler quotes to make your argument pop, you should reassess your argument in general.

Now, we don't want to spend too much time on this promo spot from MSNBC weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry Sen. Marble is referring to, except to say that it's actually a fairly benign It Takes a Village-style platitude, and the insertion of "government" in brackets in Sen. Marble's version is wholly inferred–the word "government" doesn't even appear once in this ad. And of course, this MSNBC host, who we hadn't actually heard of prior to this newsletter, has no role in, or we assume even knowledge of, legislation being debated in Colorado.

But we really don't think Sen. Marble is concerned about the details.

Folks, this is a bill to increase preschool education funding. Not a bill to "control the way our children learn, live, and even how they act in intimate relationships." Not an endorsement of any "concept of human ownership." It does not mean that parents have been "devalued to the point that our government sees us purely as breeders." Marble clearly missed the point of the "community ownership" metaphor, and her breathless ability to misunderstand this fairly simple point is troubling at best.

The only way to look at this bill and see what Sen. Marble sees is to be crazy. And it should go without saying that this kind of rhetoric will not help the Republican Party as a whole appeal to voters who are not crazy.

End of the Line for Ward Churchill

AP via the Washington Post reports today:

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill in his effort to reclaim his job.

The justices did not comment Monday in refusing to review a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in favor of the university.

Churchill faced condemnation and calls for his dismissal over an essay describing some victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader who helped orchestrate the Holocaust.

Thus ends the long battle over former tenured University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, an academic for whom a qualified defense of free speech rights was initially very much justified–but who was ultimately rendered indefensible by genuine instances of academic dishonesty uncovered during the investigations of his scholarship that ensued after his "Little Eichmanns" essay became controversial.

Former GOP Gov. Bill Owens actually testified that he was "glad" the University of Colorado "chose to ignore" his advice in 2005 that Churchill be fired solely for his essay disparaging victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Had the university done so as Owens asked, they might have made a millionaire out of Churchill instead of the pariah he has turned out to be. At best, the microscope Churchill was held up to after his essay was publicized, and the real academic dishonesty that was at length uncovered, can be summed up in the old adage, "sometimes a witch-hunt actually finds a witch"–not exactly a proud moment in Colorado civic life. As much as there is nothing for Churchill to be proud of today, we see little his detractors should celebrate either.

Sen. Owen Hill Commendably Kiboshes Fact-Free Twitter Tantrum

An "incident" in the Senate Education Committee last week involving Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak and Republican freshman Sen. Owen Hill turned into a major, albeit short-lived kerfluffle Friday after being clipped and circulated nationally by conservative media sites and social media personalities. Sen. Hudak, as you know, has been under intense fire from conservatives after a gaffe in testimony about a gun bill that later died. It appears that Friday's "Twitter bomb" of this audio clip was meant to further trash Sen. Hudak's character–an odd level of attention given to a term-limited lawmaker, but far be it from us to tell GOP operatives how to spend their time.

At issue was the debate in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday of the new School Finance Act proposal from Sen. Michael Johnston. It's a major piece of legislation, and Republicans are not favorably predisposed due to its linkage with a significant revenue measure that would appear on the statewide ballot. To make a long story short, Sen. Hudak is chair of the Education Committee. Due to scheduling, it was necessary to release committee members to their other committee obligations by 1:30PM. This put the Education Committee in the position of having a lot to cover, and not a lot of time to cover it. Sen. Hudak tried to get the committee through a long series of amendments, and probably was a bit short with Republicans who, true to form, wanted to "slow down" and debate the amendments in greater detail.

Near the very end of this hours-long proceeding, Sen. Hudak told Sen. Hill to "flip a coin" to decide how to vote on a Republican-introduced amendment to the bill. What she really wanted Sen. Hill to do, of course, was vote–and the outcome was not in question. But she was a bit rude about it, and from the audio it's clear that Sen. Hill wasn't real pleased.

The incident is what it is–probably not Sen. Hudak's most statesmanlike moment, but hardly a front-page story. Until, that is, out-of-state conservative pundits and their massive social media entourages–which have been lurking in Colorado social media channels since the gun debate–got ahold of an out-of-context recording of the incident made by a local right-wing blog


“Conservative Affirmative Action” Pick…Actually Pretty Smart?

We would be remiss if we didn't circle back to a story we've discussed a few times, the search by the University of Colorado, headed by ex-GOP kingpin and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Benson, for a "visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy." We haven't, as our readers know, had much good to say about this act of "conservative affirmative action," which could also be considered an attempt to shoehorn ideology into our state's flagship campus that just hasn't demonstrated the intellectual rigor to be there.

But as the Boulder Daily Camera reports and we must concede, they've actually found an intriguing candidate.

Steven Hayward, a "green conservative," will be the University of Colorado's first visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy.

Hayward was one of three finalists for the position. On Wednesday, CU announced his appointment, which will begin in the fall.

In an interview, Hayward said he'd like to teach a course on "free market environmentalism." He'll also teach political science courses on constitutional law and American political thought. Hayward said he would like to co-teach a lecture with a professor who has liberal leanings.

Dr. Steven Hayward is a former F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute, and a distinguished fellow at Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio. Discussions with people who know this man don't tell us that liberals will agree with him, but he is an intellectually capable and honest thinker who really might enrich students' education. We found a very interesting talk from Dr. Hayward on the AEI's website, titled "How to think seriously about the planet: The case for an environmental conservatism." You may not agree with all of it, but it's definitely worth watching:

As we've said, the privately-funded "visiting professor in conservative thought" seems to be a hypocritical response to the frequent charge of ideological bias leveled against higher education by the right–that, or at the very least, an admission something as antithetical to modern conservatism as affirmative action may sometimes have a role.

In this case, our disapproval may be complicated by the fact that they recruited an actual worthy scholar.

Lobato vs. Colorado at the Colorado Supreme Court

9NEWS reports, a portentous set of oral arguments just finished before the Colorado Supreme Court:

It will be months before the Supreme Court issues a ruling, which could have a major affect [sic] on the state budget…

"We're a wealthy state," said Kathleen Gebhardt, founder of Children's Voices, a non-profit law firm which advocates for education. "We're in the top 10 for wealth and in the bottom for funding our students."

Gebhardt is an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit of Lobato vs. the State of Colorado. The lawsuit, which has been initially upheld in district court, states that school funding is not equal across the state of Colorado and that is a violation of the state constitution. The case is currently under appeal.

According to the Colorado Department of Education and Gebhardt, schools receive an average of $6,474 per pupil in tax dollars.

"And, that puts us well into the bottom quadrant of all other states," Gebhardt said. "That worries me greatly about Colorado."

The district court ruling, which we discussed when it was issued back in 2011, was a thorough 180+ page indictment of the present state of Colorado's education system. District Judge Sheila Rappaport found that Colorado's public education funding system is not "rationally related" to the increasing requirements imposed on it–and that the state is unconstitutionally violating the Education Clause in the Colorado Constitution, which requires a "thorough and uniform" public education system.

If plaintiffs prevail, what could follow is a massive and court-mandated shakeup of not just education funding, but just about every other publicly-funded program in the state of Colorado as priorities obligatively shift to comply. The potential major upheaval this could create is a big reason why Gov. John Hickenlooper and others, even many who would support a large systemic change in support of public education, to oppose plaintiffs and argue that creating a "thorough and uniform" education system is a responsibility of the elected legislature–not the courts.

Recognizing the difficulty in striking a balance between these competing rational arguments, but mindful of the stories of severe hardship in many chronically underfunded school districts around the state, we've been anticipating this showdown for some time.

Colorado ASSET Senate Floor Debate Today

UPDATE #2: FOX 31′s Eli Stokols reports that GOP Sens. Larry Crowder, Owen Hill, and yes, Greg Brophy will vote in favor of the ASSET bill.
UPDATE: GOP freshman Sen. Larry Crowder calls Colorado ASSET a “conservative bill,” expresses his support for the legislation saying “we look at things different in Southern Colorado.”
Because we like to keep our readers informed when things are likely to get nutty at the Colorado Capitol, AP reports via the Fort Collins Coloradoan:

The Democratic Senate has approved lowered tuition rates for the illegal immigrants before. This year’s bill faces better prospects because the House is now in Democratic hands, and the Democratic governor supports the proposal.

The bill allows students at state colleges to receive in-state tuition rates, regardless of their immigration status.

We’ll update through the day with coverage and statements. Watch the debate live here:

Another Shot At The Apple?

Not to be lost among the splashier debates underway at the Capitol, the Durango Herald's Joe Hanel reports today on an ambitious new School Finance Act proposal from Sen. Michael Johnston:

A state senator is proposing a $1 billion tax increase to fund the first major change in 20 years to the way Colorado pays for its schools.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, has previously sponsored controversial school-reform legislation, including an end to seniority-based job protection for teachers.

On Monday, he unveiled what he called the capstone of those efforts – a new school-finance system to pay for the reforms passed by the Legislature. But if his bill passes, it would not take effect unless voters approve a historic tax increase for schools.

“We see this as a once-in-a-generation chance to get this right,” Johnston said…

The Legislature currently spends a little more than $5 billion on public education. Johnston estimated his new system would require an additional $750 million to $1.1 billion a year.

Read more about Sen. Johnston's proposal here. In addition to increased funding generally, badly needed after years of cuts, what we're looking at here is the first real proposal to address the historic ruling in the case of Lobato v. Colorado–which ruled that education funding in the state is fundamentally unequal, and not "rationally related" to the constitutional requirement to provide a thorough and uniform education for all students.

The last such attempt to boost education funding, 2011's Proposition 103, bombed with voters, but in the wake of its defeat, it's become clear that many voted against it because they didn't consider it to be a sufficient remedy for the problem. That fact would seem to be acknowledged in Sen. Johnston's call for an additional billion dollars per year, a number much closer to what experts say public schools in Colorado need to recover from years of austerity and cuts than Proposition 103's modest and temporary tax increases could have provided.

It's increasingly likely that this proposal, or something like it, will be a big part of our politics very soon.

Back To School With Rep. Chris Holbert

UPDATE: Statement from the National Center for Science Education:

Otherwise a typical instance of the "academic freedom" strategy for undermining the integrity of science education, HB 13-1089 was unusual in targeting higher education as well as K-12 education. The primary sponsors of HB 13-1089 were Stephen Humphrey (R-District 48) in the House and Scott Renfroe (R-District 13) in the Senate — in Colorado, bills in either house of the legislature will have a sponsor in the other house. Among those testifying for the bill was a representative of the Discovery Institute, who claimed that his organization helped to draft the bill. Among those testifying against the bill were representatives of the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association, and the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education.

"One down, seven to go," commented NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott, alluding to the seven bills still active — Arizona's Senate Bill 1213, Indiana's House Bill 1283, Missouri's House Bill 179 and House Bill 291, Montana's House Bill 183, and Oklahoma's Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674 — that would undermine the teaching of evolution and climate change in the public schools. (A further bill, Texas's House Bill 285, which would protect faculty and students in higher education from persecution over their acceptance of "intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms," is also still active.) "But this victory in Colorado was too close," Scott added. "People in Colorado and elsewhere need to understand that these bills would be nothing but trouble: scientifically misleading, pedagogically unnecessary, and likely to produce administrative, legal, and economic headaches."

Here's a fascinating clip of audio from yesterday's hearing in the Colorado House Education Committee on House Bill 13-1089–the bill from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to "foster a culture of tolerance," according to sponsor Rep. Steve Humphrey, for students whose views on certain matters of science may be "out of the mainstream" on such matters as evolution and climate change. The bill was killed yesterday in the House Ed Committee, but not before this memorable exchange between GOP Rep. Chris Holbert and Katie Navin, Executive Director of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education: 


Next Up: Making Colorado Schools Safe For Creationism!

UPDATE: A little more information on this bill's origins from the respected DeSmogBlog–the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), yet again

One sure sign of a coordinated, ALEC-lead effort is the fact that Colorado's state legislature introduced the ALEC model on the same day as did Oklahoma's. The two states, it's worth noting, share a border on Oklahoma's panhandle. 

On Jan. 18, 2013, eight representatives and four senators introduced HB 13-1089, coining the bills the "Academic Freedom Acts."

Paralleling the language in the ALEC model and the Oklahoma bill, the HB 13-1089 aims to "Inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills," also recognizing that the teaching of the concept global warming "can cause controversy." [Pols emphasis]

One of the senators co-sponsoring the bill, Rep. Scott Renfroe (R-13) is an ALEC dues-paying member. He's also attended at least one ALEC meeting paid for by Colorado taxpayers, according to the CMD's "Buying Influence" report…

But remember, gentle reader, in Colorado, ALEC is not a controversy. So don't expect to see this connection in your local paper. (H/T ClubTwitty)


Colorado ASSET: What progressives need to know

I just got this email from ProgressNow Colorado. Excellent information:

coassetfacts.jpgToday, the “Colorado ASSET” bill, which will allowВ allВ qualified Colorado resident high school graduates to attend college at in-state tuition rates, is expected to pass its first test in the Colorado Senate Education Committee.

There is a great deal of misinformation being put out about this important legislation by opponents, and we as progressives have an obligation to help set the record straight. Here are some basic facts aboutВ Senate Bill 13-033: learn the truth, thenВ contact your Colorado Senator and urge them to SUPPORT this important bill.

The Facts About ASSET

The fact is, we have already invested thousands educating all of the children who will benefit from Senate Bill 13-033. We have invested in their K-12 education, and these students have responded by succeeding academically in Colorado schools. By providing a path to these bright students to continue their studies, all we’re doing is following through on an investmentВ we’ve already made.

Colorado has a constitutional obligation, backed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, to provide a K-12 education to every child in our state regardless of their documentation or immigration status. It therefore makes no sense to create barriers for children who have demonstrated academic success in Colorado schools to completing their education. By making college an attainable goal for all Colorado students, ASSET will increase revenue for our cash-strapped institutions of higher education.

Remember, Colorado ASSET will only allow the children affected by the bill to pay in-state tuition at Colorado colleges and universities provided they can meet the following criteria:

  • The student must have already attended a Colorado public or private high school for a minimum of 3 years.
  • The student must have graduated from a public or private high school in Colorado, or received their general equivalency diploma (GED)–here in Colorado.

And of course, the student must meet all of the academic requirements and be admitted to a Colorado institution of higher education.

Many of the currently undocumented students who would benefit from Colorado ASSET are already working their way through the U.S. immigration system and are able to be legally employed. All other students who might benefit are required to seek lawful presence as soon as possible.

Please help us spread the truth about this important legislation.В Click here to send a message to your Colorado Senator right now, urging them to support the Colorado ASSET bill. And forward this message to all of your friends and neighbors so they can get the facts as well.

Thank you. This is legislation that we expect to pass with at leastВ someВ bipartisan support, but it’s critical that we as progressives do everything we can to educate our friends and neighbors, and dispel misinformation. We support Colorado ASSET because it’s the right thing to do, and the right thing for Colorado’s competitiveness in a global economy.

And working together, our great state is going to take this positive step.

Read the full text of the Colorado ASSET bill as introducedВ here.

Ray Scott demonstrates profound dishonesty…or ignorance…you choose

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Representative Ray Scott of Mesa CountyВ introduced a bill into the Colorado Legislature on Friday that would exempt oil and gas wells permittedВ in the next two yearsВ from the states’ severance tax.В  В He claims the point is to help fund education, because after the two year free ride, he intendsВ subsequent severance taxes will be earmarked to fund college tuitions. Yeah, …right.

His supposition is that a freebie from the state is necessary and desirable to spur a slug of permits that will then create a resultant uptick in drilling, which will then spur job creation. He claims the idea is much like Amendment 58 which went down in 2008 by nearly 60 % at the ballot box…but it isn’t.

The Bill Ritter supported Amendment 58 would have raised severance taxes on O&G production and would have ended the decades long Ad Valorem Tax Credit that alreadyВ allows O&G companies to reduce their severance taxes in the amount of the property taxes they owe.В  This discount, which they alone enjoy, В amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes they don’t pay…year after year. To offer them another freebie and try to link it to a bill that did just the opposite to the industryВ isВ  plainly dishonest.

But, when you are a legislative toad for the oil and gas industry, you can never be quite dishonest enough…so Rep. Scott deals out this whopper…

 “The oil and gas industry in Colorado is arguably the largest industry in our state,

This , of course, is not true…and I believe Ray Scott knows it. В O&G are part of the energy and mining sector of our state economy…a sector which makes up under 5% of our state economic output. He is either lying or ignorant.

he also offers up another gem…

“Each derrick’s going to create potentially 200 jobs. If we could get one extra derrick in Mesa County right now, that 200 jobs is important. If we got five, that’s a thousand jobs.”

I am not sure what sort of math the good Representative is using to calculate this (or where he gets his data), but it is the same sort of calculation, I will bet, that allows the “blonde lady in the black pantsuit” to claim O&G supports 11,000,000 jobs nationally. I have checked withВ  the U.S. Dept. of Labor and I can only say to her, “liar, liar, pantsuit on fire” because she isn’t telling the truth…

and neither is Ray Scott.

Great idea! School security guard leaves gun in bathroom

Raw Story has a story that’s so funny it was almost a tragedy. It’s not the whole reply, but here’s one to mention when you debate your gun nut relative next time:

A prosecutor in Lapeer, Michigan says, “No harm, no foul,” after a charter school took the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) advice and hired a armed security guard who promptly left his handgun unattended in a student bathroom.

Chatfield School co-directors Matt Young and Bill Kraly announced last week that they had hired retired Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. firearms instructor Clark Arnold as a security guard in response to the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.


Wednesday, the school had admitted to The Flint Journal that the retired firearms instructor had made a “made a breach in security protocol” and left his unloaded handgun unattended in the school restroom “for a few moments.”

“The school has put additional security procedures in place that follow local law enforcement practices and guidelines,” a statement from Young said. “At no time was any student involved in this breach of protocol. We will continue to work on improving school security.”

Florida Supreme Court Public Pension Decision Instructive for Colorado General Assembly.

Florida Supreme Court: Accrued Public Pension Benefits Are Inviolate; However, Pension Benefits Not Yet Earned Can Be Altered . . . Prospectively.

Vested Public Pension COLA Rights in Florida Remain Untouched – Legislative Impairment of Previously Accrued Benefits is Unconstitutional.

The Florida Legislature “Cannot Retroactively Alter Accrued Benefits.”

The Florida Supreme Court has reached a decision (January 17) in the Scott V. Williams public pension case. Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court held that while the Florida Legislature cannot take back pension benefits that have already been earned, it can change benefits yet to be earned . . . prospectively.  The ruling impacts current, active public pension members in the state.  In accordance with the ruling, public employees will continue to contribute three percent of their salaries toward their pension benefits (previously, the public pension system was “non-contributory.”)  Florida public sector retirees, of course, have completed accrual of public pension benefits, and are unaffected by the ruling.

The Florida Supreme Court ruling reverses an earlier trial court ruling, and is a sad loss for Florida public sector unions.В  Undeterred, union members vow to reverse the decision through the legislative process.

The sponsors of the challenged Florida pension reform legislation argued that the reform measure operated on a purely prospective basis, and accordingly, did not impair any of the state’s existing contractual relationships.  (I cannot fathom how so many members of the Colorado General Assembly reached the conclusion in 2010 that they could legally breach existing public pension contracts in SB 10-001 . . . retroactively seizing previously accrued public pension benefits.)

The Florida Supreme Court decision is in conformance with legal arguments made by law professor Amy Monahan at the University of Minnesota School of Law.В  In her paper, Public Pension Reform: The Legal Framework, Monahan writes:

“What if, ten years into X’s tenure with the state, the state announces that effective immediately, pension benefits will only accrue at the rate of 1% of salary per year?  I have argued that such prospective changes should be permitted absent an explicit agreement protecting against such changes.”

Monahan concludes:

“This Article has argued that pension benefits that have already been earned through services rendered to the state should be protected against impairment, but that it is hard to find legal justification for protecting the rate of future benefit accruals.”

Link to Monahan law article:

As I have previously written, Monahan’s arguments have been contested.  Also, many state courts have ruled that employee rights to public pension benefits vest upon commencement of employment, or in the early years of public employment.  It is also legally relevant that prior to enactment of the challenged public pension reform legislation in Florida, the state’s pension system was “non-contributory.”  This fact significantly alters the contractual relationship of the parties in Florida and limits applicability of the decision’s legal rationale to most other public pension systems in the United States.

From the Florida Supreme Court ruling:

“Section 121.101(3), as amended in 2011, continues to provide a 3% cost-of-living adjustment to those persons who retired prior to July 1, 2011.”

(My comment: Note that, according to the Florida Supreme Court, public pensions with 80 percent funded ratios are adequately funded.В  Why does the Colorado General Assembly propose to breach Colorado PERA pension contracts until a 100 percent funded ratio is achieved?В  A ridiculous and unnecessary overreach?)

From the decision:

“the FRS has been operating well above the 80% funding ratio recommended by experts . . ”

From the Orlando Sentinel:

“‘We recognized the authority of the Legislature to amend a retirement plan prospectively, so long as any benefits tied to service performed prior to the amendment date are not lost or impaired,’ wrote Labarga.”


From Reuters:

“Florida legislators were mindful enough of constitutional considerations that when they passed amendments to state pension law in early 2011, they made the changes prospective. В Past pension benefits weren’t affected by the amendments, but after July 2011, the new law said, state workers would have to contribute 3 percent of their gross compensation to a plan that had previously required no employee contribution; and they would have to forgo 3 percent annual cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions. В The prospective consequences of the law seemed to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1981 holding in Florida Sheriffs Association v. Department of Administration, which said that although past benefits are protected under the state constitution’s contract clause, the legislature has the power to change future pension rights.”

“Thursday’s ruling by the Supreme Court reversed the trial court but stopped well short of offering broad support for the constitutionality of pension cost-shifting. В The court reiterated its holding from Florida Sheriffs that state law ‘does not create binding contract rights for existing employees to future retirement benefits’ and said that the new law’s changes were, indeed, prospective and thus legal.”


From NW Daily News:

“A law championed by Gov. Rick Scott that requires teachers, state and county workers and some municipal employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state’s pension plan was narrowly upheld by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.”

“The 4-3 decision reversed a trial judge’s ruling that the law violated the collective bargaining, contract and property rights of about 600,000 public employees including police, firefighters and other first-responders.”

“The law, which went into effect on July 1, 2011, also repealed 3 percent annual cost of living increases for benefits accrued after that date.”


From the Miami Herald:

“Scott argued it was unfair that Florida’s public employees didn’t contribute because workers in most other states and the private sector are required to help pay for their pensions if they still have that benefit.”

“The high court majority cited a 1981 Supreme Court opinion that said the law protected rights and benefits already earned but did not preclude the Legislature from altering benefits prospectively for future service.”

“Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the majority that the same principle applied to the new law that restored employee contributions, so it does not violate employees’ contract rights nor take away property in the form of their pension benefits.”


Link to the Florida Supreme Court decision:

From the Florida Supreme Court Ruling:

“In so ruling, the circuit court acknowledged this Court’s 1981 decision in Florida Sheriffs Ass’n v. Department of Administration, 408 So. 2d 1033, 1037 (Fla. 1981), in which we held that the preservation of rights statute ‘vest[ed] all rights and benefits already earned under the present retirement plan’ but did not preclude the Legislature from altering benefits prospectively for future state service in the existing noncontributory plan.”

(My comment: According to the Florida Supreme Court, virtually no degree of impairment of existing contracts will be allowed.)

“In determining the question of unconstitutional contract impairment in Florida, where a contract has been found to exist and to have been impaired by subsequent legislation, this Court in Pomponio v. Claridge of Pompano Condominium, Inc., 378 So. 2d 774 (Fla. 1979), adopted a balancing approach to determine if a statute unconstitutionally impairs a contract. We recognized in Pomponio that ‘virtually no degree of impairment’ will be tolerated . . .”

“The government’s significant impairment of its own contract is not justified by necessity if ‘the State[] could have adopted alternative means’ of achieving its goals without altering the contract rights.”

(My comment: At, dozens of “less drastic” alternatives to the breach of Colorado PERA public pension contracts have been documented.)

From the Florida Supreme Court decision:

“We again hold, as we did in Florida Sheriffs, that the preservation of rights statute was not intended to bind future legislatures from prospectively altering benefits for future service performed by all members of the FRS.  We further hold that the 2011 amendments requiring a 3% employee contribution as of July 1, 2011, and continuing thereafter, and the elimination of the COLA for service performed after that date are prospective changes within the authority of the Legislature to make. The preservation of rights statute does not create binding contract rights for existing employees to future retirement benefits based upon the FRS plan that was in place prior to July 1, 2011.”

“As correctly held in Florida Sheriffs, this interpretation would be contrary to the Legislature’s intent as well as the logical meaning of the statute, which is to ensure that the Legislature cannot retroactively alter accrued benefits.”

“The State contends that the 2011 amendments to the FRS operate prospectively only and, thus, the trial court’s order finding that the law impairs existing contract rights of current members of the FRS is inconsistent with this Court’s interpretation of the preservation of rights statute in Florida Sheriffs.”

“Both parties agree that if an existing member of the FRS retired on June 30, 2011, none of his or her benefits would be diminished.”

“Further, the amendments provide that upon retirement, any right to a COLA is limited to a calculation giving credit only for the employee’s service performed prior to July 1, 2011.”

“The State contends that because the 3% contribution requirement and the elimination of the COLA did not take effect until July 1, 2011, and did not diminish any benefits earned as of that date, the amendments were purely prospective.”

“We explained: ‘That rule of law has now been changed by the ‘preservation of rights’ section which modifies the Voorhees rule and vests all rights and benefits already earned under the present retirement plan so that the legislature may now only alter retirement benefits prospectively.’”

“We stress that the rights provision was not intended to bind future legislatures from prospectively altering benefits which accrue for future state service.”

“A reading of the entire decision discloses our conclusion that the preservation of rights statute was enacted to give contractual protection to those retirement benefits already earned as of the date of any amendments to the plan.  We recognized the authority of the Legislature to amend a retirement plan prospectively, so long as any benefits tied to service performed prior to the amendment date are not lost or impaired.”

“We again hold, as we did in Florida Sheriffs, that the preservation of rights statute was not intended to bind future legislatures from prospectively altering benefits for future service performed by all members of the FRS.  We further hold that the 2011 amendments requiring a 3% employee contribution as of July 1, 2011, and continuing thereafter, and the elimination of the COLA for service performed after that date are prospective changes within the authority of the Legislature to make.”

“As we held in Florida Sheriffs, we again hold that the actions of the Legislature have not impaired any statutorily created contract rights and, thus, we reverse the judgment of the trial court on this ground.”

Coffman Disses Everyone Except Business Majors?

Courtesy Westword’s Sam Levin, a fascinating newsletter sent by Rep. Mike Coffman at the end of last month. On the apparent fringe of yet another issue:

I think it is time to question whether a significant number of the majors taught at undergraduate institutions are a good investment.  This relates to the taxpayers, who subsidize the cost of higher education by either bearing part of the cost at public institutions, or by subsidizing loan programs at private ones.  Graduates, with liberal arts degrees, often find entry level jobs that are little better than what they would have gotten had they never attended college in the first place.

The question needs to be raised, during such challenging fiscal environments for both states and the federal government, whether taxpayers should only be subsidizing majors, or curriculums, that directly lead to employment in technically a related field. [Pols emphasis]

Got that? Unless you’re getting a degree that leads to “technical skills,” the government shouldn’t “subsidize” your education–which would presumably mean interest-subsidized student loans in addition to obvious things like Pell Grants. Now, it’s not a coincidence that all those liberal arts, social science, and other majors that don’t, in Coffman’s view, “directly lead to employment,” are the same ones that conservatives perennially complain are hotbeds of “liberal indoctrination.” So there’s that. But is it true that liberal arts degrees are useless in the job market as Coffman suggests? As if “they never attended college in the first place?”

Not according to FOX Business:

Liberal arts degrees get an unjustified bad rap, which is often perpetuated by anecdotal stories about a single person searching for a job, says Carole Haber, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University.

“Two misconceptions fuel this discussion:  one, that the ‘worth’ can be measured by dollars alone rather than through higher level skills gained through the degree, and two, that the value can be measured through the individual’s first job, rather than through the life course,” she says.

Liberal arts grads can have an advantage over their peers by potentially earning a higher salary in the future, says Lee.

“There has been data to suggest that even though liberal arts graduates in an entry-level position tend to earn less than their counterparts who have very career-focused [degrees], within 10 to 20 years they tend to outpace their counterparts in terms of income,” she says. [Pols emphasis]

On top of that, a report from the Social Science Research Council shows students with skills typically taught in liberal arts programs tend to be more successful after graduation.

There are a host of other benefits frequently cited to justify the economic value of a nontechnical degree, from proficiency in foreign languages to broad-based critical thinking skills. There are anecdotal scenarios on both sides of the issue–certainly there are both history majors and MBAs who have had employment problems–but there’s really nobody except for hard-core GOP politicians (like Florida Gov. Rick Scott) seriously arguing that these degrees have no redeeming value to either the economy or society. It actually comes across as quite radical.

As Westword reports, Coffman’s opponent ses an opening, and is hitting this one hard:

Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for [Joe] Miklosi, Coffman’s Democratic challenger, sent us this statement in response to the newsletter:

“Making these drastic cuts to state and federal support for higher education would have a damaging effect on Colorado’s economic growth. Mike Coffman also supports the radical Ryan budget, which would cut Pell Grants, allow student loan interest rates to double and end Medicare as we know it — all while keeping taxpayer giveaways to Big Oil and companies that ship jobs overseas. This is just another example of why his agenda of promoting reckless cuts that put the burden on the backs of students and seniors is too extreme for Colorado.”

To be fair, though, fewer history majors could benefit politicians who shoot off at the mouth.