Expanding internet access across the state
One of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s more quotable remarks from his State of the State address last month was that government agencies would press forward to bring broadband “to every corner and corral” in Colorado.
While the imagery may be spot-on — much of the state consists of wide-open spaces and rural communities not conducive to private investment in broadband infrastructure — the words ring hollow.
State lawmakers have been making a fuss over “the digital divide” for years now. In fact, they crowed about telecom reform legislation in 2014 that rerouted part of a $54 million annual ratepayer subsidy into a broadband fund.
But that fund has provided zero dollars to pay for broadband projects — because it doesn’t have any money in it yet. The Sentinel’s Charles Ashby chronicled why in Sunday’s paper.
The why is less important than the effect. Despite heavy preaching about the importance of broadband to the economic prospects of rural Colorado, the Legislature has yet to deliver.
That will change soon. CenturyLink and the state’s Public Utilities Commission are expected to settle a regulatory appeal of the 2014 law that will shift about $2.9 million into the broadband fund, which will be available immediately as grants to for-profit providers interested in building high-speed Internet connections in hard-to-reach areas.
But Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, fears the settlement agreement will only bring about $14 million into the fund in the next few years — a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s rural needs.
So, she’s proposing new legislation to put more demands on how the PUC defines “effective competition” among telecom companies. Areas lacking competition pay into the state’s High-Cost Maintenance Support Mechanism. Areas that are designated as having enough competition instead pay directly into the broadband fund. Donovan’s bill attempts to designate more areas as having competitive telephone service, thus diverting more money to broadband development.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel, who spearheaded the 2014 telecom reform law, has another idea: He wants to exempt Internet providers from paying business personal property tax for infrastructure they build in the state as long as it provides broadband service.
That measure wouldn’t necessarily incentivize providers to build high-speed fiber networks in rural areas. And local governments, which are the only entities to assess and receive business personal property taxes, have balked at losing out on revenue.
Scheffel, R-Parker, argues that local governments would benefit from economic development that would arise from the new infrastructure. But that doesn’t solve the rural issue. What’s wrong with requiring providers to build a certain percentage of networks in rural areas to qualify for the incentive?
Credit Donovan and Scheffel for creatively addressing a problem that many thought the state would be well on its way to solving by now. As Donovan astutely summed up: “Without broadband, we can’t even start talking about our future.”
Making changes to the state constitution
Coloradans can amend their state constitution as easily as they can pass a statute, and that parity is a problem.
Citizens who should be content with passing a law at the ballot often insist on trying to embed complex measures into the constitution where they can’t be adjusted no matter how flawed they turn out to be.
That’s why we’ve long favored raising the bar somewhat for changing the constitution while protecting the basic right.
Two years ago the legislature considered a measure that would have asked voters to double the number of signatures needed to put an amendment on the ballot. That effort foundered, as did an earlier one to raise the needed vote for a constitutional amendment from 50 percent to 60 percent.
Coloradans treasure their right to the ballot initiative. For any reform to pass, it can’t appear punitive, as those arguably did.
Now comes the Building a Better Colorado coalition with its own ideas for how to strengthen requirements for amendments. The bipartisan group has filed five possible ballot measures for this fall, four of which would hike the required vote margin from 50 percent to 55 percent. Several also require petitions include the signatures of 2 percent of registered voters in each state Senate district.
Let’s dispense with the second plan first. It’s too clever by half and adds layers of complexity to the process — there are 35 Senate districts, after all — that are simply unwarranted. It also gives the advantage to petition drives funded by the rich, since they’ll be able to deploy signature collectors far and wide in compliance with the measure.
A 55 percent rule is more straightforward, however, and voters should be given a chance to rule on it. We’ll want to examine more closely how it would have affected ballot measures over Colorado’s history before reaching a definitive opinion, but 55 percent is certainly not an impossible barrier.
Even Amendment 64 in 2012, legalizing marijuana and its retail sale, passed by slightly more than 55 percent.
But some major amendments would not have passed the 55 percent barrier, including the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and Amendment 23, which cemented a funding formula for schools into the constitution.
Citizens in most states can’t amend their constitutions through popular vote, but it’s a valuable right that is perfectly suited to addressing cases when the political and civic elite are out of step with the popular mood. Such was true in the drive to stop the Winter Olympics in 1972 (59 percent of voters said “no”) and Colorado’s first term-limit measure in 1990 (71 percent approval).
Imagine waiting for politicians to limit their own terms.
In other words, the process of amending the constitution needs to be protected. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a little harder to do than it is today.
The minimum wage
At $8.31 an hour, Colorado’s minimum wage is largely academic. A full-time worker earning minimum wage will bring in $17,000 a year — an amount inadequate to cover essentials in any community in the state. In many cities, including Durango, that $17,000 would hardly scratch the surface in covering living expenses. As such, it makes sense for local communities — if they so choose — to set appropriate wage guidelines that correspond to the cost of living in a given region. Nevertheless, the state Senate killed a bill that would have allowed such local control.
Senate Bill 54 would have repealed statutory language that reserves minimum wage-setting rights for the state, thereby extending the authority to local jurisdictions. However, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee — among the Legislature’s best-known “kill” committees — laid the measure to rest on a 3-2 party line vote. Republicans whose votes killed the bill apparently accepted opponents’ rationale that extending wage-setting authority to local governments would create uncertainty in the marketplace by creating a patchwork of regulations.
But the varied and divergent economic makeup of Colorado’s communities suggests that uniformity — in wages, housing, fuel, food and utility costs — is far from the norm in the state. Handicapping low-wage earners or communities that aim to increase those earners’ bottom lines is not the appropriate means of injecting uniformity.
Given the wide disparity in cost of living across Colorado and the corresponding challenges many communities have with affordable housing and cost of living that is out of reach, wages ought to be able to fluctuate accordingly. While the market, ideally, should respond to these conditions, many Colorado communities — Durango among them — report a growing imbalance between earnings and the salary it takes to cover basic costs. If the Legislature is unwilling to address this disparity at the statewide level — where a uniform wage boost, while helpful, would not necessarily respond to wage-cost discrepancies in Colorado’s most expensive communities — then granting local entities the right to do so is warranted.
The Colorado Center on Law and Policy released a report in 2015 documenting the self-sufficiency standard — the earnings needed to “realistically support a family” without public or private assistance — for the state. The index covers food, housing, health and child care, transportation, taxes, savings and household items such as clothing and diapers. One adult in La Plata County would have to earn $11.15 an hour to meet that standard; one adult with an infant and a preschooler would require $28.57 an hour. In that context, an $8.31 means very little. A single adult in Yuma County, on the other hand, needs just $8.25 an hour to make ends meet, while the parent of the same family of three must earn $19.32 an hour to do so.
The discrepancy is stark, and allowing local communities to address it according to their needs and gaps would provide the needed flexibility to help correct markets that are determined by factors other than straight economics: quality of life, proximity to public lands, community size and diversity all play a role in a community’s desirability and corresponding income disparity. The Legislature missed an opportunity to empower communities to, where needed, address imbalances in a manner tooled to the needs of their economic sectors, a process that can spur important conversations among workers, business owners and policymakers invested in their collective well-being.
Funding for underperforming schools
More money will fix underperforming schools. So goes the mantra of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, President Barack Obama and others with good intentions. Gazette editorials have questioned the hypothesis for decades. Good capital into failing schematics typically buys more negative results.
Obama and Bennet have counted on the federal government’s School Improvement Grant program to improve outcomes in schools throughout the country, known for unacceptable test scores and graduation rates.
“This grant will help ensure that more schools in Colorado are providing a quality education to our kids,” said Bennet, after Colorado received a round of School Improvement Grant money in 2013.
In all, 39 failing Colorado schools have collectively received more than $50 million in School Improvement Grants in the past five years. Of those, 29 continue to perform so poorly the Colorado State Board of Education may shut them down or convert them to charters within a year.
A new Denver Post investigation found the massive influx of federal capital has shown almost no positive results, and in some cases schools awarded grants have produced significantly lower test scores than before the receipt of federal grants. The report highlights a few specific schools, the money they received and the decreasing outcomes that correlate with the cash flow.
Pueblo schools received $9.7 million to divide among the district’s six lowest-performing schools. Achievement declines have been dramatic: “At Roncalli Middle School. … math proficiency scores dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2014 and reading slipped from 59 to 33 percent,” the Post reported.
U.S. News & World Report warned two years ago of nationwide disappointment in grants to low-performance schools.
“The Obama administration has invested heavily in a portion of these schools through a program called School Improvement Grants,” the magazine reported. “But the grant program’s record has been underwhelming: A third of schools that were given major cash infusions to boost student achievement actually regressed.”
Money works like fuel, in its ability to produce or destroy. Throwing gas on a wildfire nets more wanton destruction at a faster pace. Fuel fed to an engineered combustion machine produces desirable heat, transportation or production of goods. As machines improve — think high mileage cars and modern furnaces — they require less fuel, not more.
Colorado school boards and state government have designed modern education models that get increasingly efficient results.
By creating a competitive environment of educational choice, mostly with public charter schools, educators compete for enrollment. They attract students by achieving high test scores, graduation rates and impressive placement results. They specialize, offering curriculum geared toward math, science, art, music or other topics that emphasize an individual’s strengths. Some charters focus on remedial solutions for students who do not excel in traditional classroom settings. In the school choice paradigm, money doesn’t magically appear from a distant bureaucracy. Funds adequate for survival relate directly to results. Schools adapt to student needs or die.
Thanks to the Post’s investigative inquiry, we are reminded of a few basic facts:
— Chasing failure with money tends to buy more failure.
— Free-market forces improve education, just as they improve other services and goods.
— The federal Department of Education — a Washington bureaucracy far removed from Colorado parents, teachers and students — is not suited to improve our schools.
Let’s learn from this empirical data and keep schools under local control that holds them to high accountability standards. Keep education competitive, efficient and focused on outcomes for kids.
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