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Colorado governor pushes his luck on funding for schools

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

DENVER — Sometimes you're good, sometimes you're lucky, and if you're Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, sometimes you're probably a little of both.

A Democrat, Mr. Hickenlooper resisted the tea party tide in 2010 to win the governor's race, in part because he was a popular Denver mayor who ran a solid campaign. But he also benefited from a Republican Party primary debacle that resulted in two de facto GOP candidates, who split the conservative vote in the general election and handed Mr. Hickenlooper an easy win.

Now comes Lobato v. Colorado, a case filed in 2005 that threatens to wreak all manner of havoc on the state's cash-strapped budget and the state's struggling economy in the name of school funding fairness.

The plaintiffs, who include parents and 21 school districts, argue that the state has violated its constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and uniform" public-school system because of unequal funding levels. Testimony concluded Friday before Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport.

No matter how she rules, the case is expected to reach the Colorado Supreme Court, which has long been known for its liberal judicial activism. Analysts say a win for the plaintiffs could compel the state to spend billions more on education, effectively neutering its Taxpayers Bill of Rights and forcing dramatic tax hikes.

Count Mr. Hickenlooper, who faces re-election after the decision, on the anti-Lobato side. "Gov. Hickenlooper is a defendant in this case, he's a Democrat, and he is supporting us fully in defense of this lawsuit," said Deputy Attorney General Geoff Blue on a Denver public-affairs show, "The Devil's Advocate."

Spending on K-12 education constitutes 40 percent of the state budget, but state officials estimate that could soar to nearly 100 percent if the Lobato case succeeds. The lawsuit calls for an additional $3 billion for schools, saying the funding is necessary in order to meet the educational goals set by the state legislature.

Just as analysts were predicting surefire fiscal Armageddon, however, the unexpected happened. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Alex Martinez, who was widely seen to be part of a liberal majority in favor of Lobato, announced Aug. 24 he would resign to take a job as Denver safety manager under newly elected Mayor Michael Hancock.

That allows Mr. Hickenlooper to fill the vacancy before the case hits the high court. Given the governor's moderate political leanings, not to mention the stakes involved in Lobato, most court-watchers are predicting he'll name a justice with centrist judicial views.

"There's a case to do that for reasons even beyond Lobato," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Hickenlooper is a moderate, and there's been a feeling for a while that the court is too liberal."

What's more, Justice Monica Marquez may recuse herself from the case because she worked on it while employed by the state attorney general's office prior to being named to the high court by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. That means the case could be decided by six justices, three of whom voted in an earlier Lobato ruling to leave school funding issues to the legislature.

There's no guarantee when it comes to court rulings, but there's also no sense in betting against Mr. Hickenlooper when his political fortunes are in play. Remember, he's lucky like that.

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