Governor Polis campaigned on expanding early childhood education and it is an election year so he is going to get it done, regardless of the consequences.
House Bill 22-1295 establishes the new Department of Early Childhood and Universal Preschool Program and is sponsored by Democrat Speaker of the House, Alec Garnett and Democrat President of the Senate, Stephen Fenberg. This is important because they both have significant power over the legislature. This is Polis’ legacy bill so it has potentially been drafted with his voice behind the scenes.
Originally, the 485-page bill (now 522 pages) dropped late on a Friday and had its first hearing the following Thursday. Plenty of time for the legislators voting on whether or not to move this forward to read the bill, right? It reminds of the famous Nancy Pelosi line on the Affordable Care Act: “We need to pass it to find out what’s in it.” How did that work out?
One major concern in the bill is the governance structure…or lack thereof. Under the new Department of Early Childhood, the executive director is in total control. He or she will have complete, unchecked power. There were concerns raised by both Democrats and Republicans alike on the lack of governance structure, with one Democrat county commissioner stating that there should not be a rural/urban divide when it comes to our children.
This is not just bad precedent but bad governance. Even Governor Polis should be concerned. What if a future governor does not share his vision for early childhood education and appoints an executive director that completely changes the program, with no oversight? Regardless of whether or not we agree with this new bureaucracy, having an accountable and transparent governance structure is crucial to the new agency’s success. It is unfortunate that Republican Senator Kevin Priola voted with the Democrats against establishing a governance model.
If having an early childhood education “czar” makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry. The bill says that in three years from now, an independent evaluation of the governance/no-governance model will occur. Problem solved?
The language in the bill currently places unfunded mandates on counties at a time when the state is flush with cash, and contains provisions that violate state law. Minor oversights, I’m sure.
An amendment coming from the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) passed the House to change the funding source for the roll-out of the universal preschool program so that it is coming out of American Rescue Plan Act Funds, which is one-time money without a longer-term funding source. Creating this new program should not happen overnight. But apparently we can’t wait. Change is going to happen and it is going to happen now.
From a fiscal perspective, as you may recall, money to fund universal preschool is coming out of Proposition EE, the tax increase on nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, cigarettes and tobacco. The fiscal note on the bill clearly states that the funding is “projected” as “exact costs of preschool cannot be estimated.” I feel some uneasiness in this statement, and I am sure that you, the taxpayers, do too.
The fiscal note also says that there is no change in expenditures since they are just moving people out of the Departments of Human Services and Education and into the new agency. The JBC approved $8.1 million to start the new agency, though the fiscal note says that the bill will not have any impact on state appropriations. Don’t forget that there are over 160 employees for the new agency.
In the House, the bill passed on a strict party-line vote. This should be an opportunity to have thoughtful, bipartisan discussions on what the needs are for children as it relates to early childhood education and how to financially support these needs in a sustainable, long-term way. Perhaps the conversation could include free-market, choice-based solutions? Instead, Democrats are basically creating an entitlement program, the cost of which is unknown, that will be paid on the backs of taxpayers for years to come.
Rose Pugliese is a former Mesa County Commissioner and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.
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