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Tin-Cup Legislation?

Here's something that brings new meaning to campaign finance.

The Colorado legislature is considering several bills related to private school vouchers, including one signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Bill Owens that establishes a pilot voucher program for students in poorly performing public schools. ("Gov. Owens Signs Colorado Voucher Bill," News in Brief, this issue.)

Another measure, Senate Bill 77, would provide scholarships to students in three Denver-area school districts to attend participating private schools. The scholarships themselves, limited to $5,200 each, would not affect the state treasury, because the state would shift education aid from school districts to cover the private school tuition.

But the state education department says it would need $78,300 to cover a full-time position to administer the program. Colorado, like many other states, happens to be a bit short of surplus cash at the moment.

The Colorado Alliance for Reform, a nonprofit organization that wholeheartedly supports voucher experiments, stepped up earlier this month and wrote a check to the state for the $78,300.

The appropriations committee of the state Senate accepted the private check on April 11, then promptly voted 6- 4 to approve the scholarship program.

Sen. Ron Teck, a Republican who voted for the program, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: "If everyone would show up with a check, that would make this job so much easier."

The senator's office said he wasn't available for comment late last week.

Observers say that while some state programs rely on donations, they cannot remember another instance when a legislative panel accepted such funding from a group that supported a specific piece of legislation and then voted for the very bill.

Government watchdog groups were bothered by the transaction.

"There's something terribly out of whack when the government is making decisions on policy issues based on the size of a check from private industry," said Peter Maysmith, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, which has no position of the voucher bill itself.

"If you play that out logically, it would be like having the meat industry write out a check for the government's meat-inspection program," he added.

—Mark Walsh

Vol. 22, Issue 32, Page 18

Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as State Journal

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