The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel, Dec. 17, on transparency in court proceedings:
“The general public shall not be excluded.”
Those words, or a variation of them, appear throughout Colorado’s laws, including in the children’s code, and for good reason. We live in a representative republic, and that means the public has a right to know about, and participate in things involving, well, the public.
Having said that, we understand why the law allows certain proceedings - either in the courts specifically, or government in general - to operate behind closed doors: contracts, personnel matters, legal issues. Generally, those are the exceptions, and primarily because of a need to balance open government with personal privacy.
So we can understand why, for example, a juvenile’s court proceedings may be closed to the public. In some cases, it isn’t necessarily in the best interests of a child to hold open court proceedings when dealing with minors, particularly minors of a tender age.
But in this day and age when public shootings are seemingly becoming a weekly affair, including in our schools and in a state that has been rocked by very public mass shootings, court proceedings in matters that impact the lives and safety of others need to remain public, even if it involves a juvenile.
We are speaking, of course, of the recent case of a 13-year-old girl who allegedly threatened, in public and on social media, to “shoot up” her school, Mount Garfield Middle School.
In that case, Mesa County Magistrate William McNulty opted to close a bond hearing for the girl, Shauntelle Wilson, who allegedly made the threats, despite protestations from Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre, who said she had never seen such a request in her experience as a prosecutor.
Parents who also have children at that school have a right to know about the case, and what potential harm could have been done to their children. Moreover, at a time when shootings seem to be occurring everywhere, don’t we all have the right to know if our lives are in danger, regardless of the age of the one making the threats?
Given all that, it’s hard to understand McNulty’s justification in closing a simple bond hearing, which we fear could be a signal that he intends to close the rest of the court proceedings in this case. We all have a right to know, for example, how a 13-year-old could have access to a weapon. We all need to know if, for example, her threat was the product of bullying at school. We all want to know her motivations for doing this so we can address whatever issues we need to address to prevent it from happening elsewhere.
Clearly we have a problem in this country when it comes to mass shootings. Clearly we have no answers to how to solve them. A troubled 13-year-old is deserving of our sympathy, understanding and intervention, but the magistrate does a disservice to one of the foundational pillars of our republic when he tries to limit access to information relevant to public safety.
The Pueblo Chieftain, Dec. 17, on extending the wind power tax credit:
Congressional leaders have struck a budget deal that includes extending the federal wind power tax credit through next year, then phasing it down through 2019. If the full House and Senate pass the leaders’ budget, the tax credit extension would mean Vestas America and other wind companies could book orders for wind turbines. The buyers then could take advantage of the full credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour generated for another year.
The tax subsidy is an essential incentive to help companies like Vestas, which has a wind tower manufacturing plant just south of Pueblo. Vestas also has three other sites in Colorado that put together the blades and other components that go into the wind towers.
A year’s extension gives Vestas and other wind turbine suppliers a measure of certainty that they can continue to compete in the power generation market. The challenge after that would be to get Congress to lengthen or ease off the second part of the deal, which is to reduce the tax credit by 20 percent a year between 2017 and 2019.
According to news reports, Democrats agreed to lift the 40-year ban on exporting oil as a tradeoff for extending a list of business tax credits, including wind power.
The tax credit is but a small part of the mammoth $1.1 trillion budget the party leaders have recommended to the rest of the Congress. Members of Congress now can read the entire federal spending plan put to them before it goes to the president.
The Durango Herald, Dec. 19, on funding for two important state programs:
It is impressive enough that Congress managed to pass a spending bill to fund the government through September 2017 without the now-routine threats of shutdowns and other brinksmanship games that have plagued legislators steeped in partisan rancor. Even better is that the omnibus measure contains funding for programs important to Colorado and La Plata County. Both the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired in September, and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program - which provides funds to communities where non-taxable federal acreage dominates the land base - are included in the spending bill, signaling a critical investment in Western priorities, and values held dear locally.
For more than 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been one of the United States’ bedrock programs that articulates a commitment to investing in “outdoor-recreation resources” that strengthen the “health and vitality of the citizens,” according to the bill establishing the fund in 1964. Since then, the LWCF has dedicated nearly $17 billion to state and federal efforts - including more than $450,000 in La Plata County - to protect and dedicate land to outdoor recreation. However, Congress failed to reauthorize investing in the program before it expired at the end of September.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, has long been a leader calling for permanent reauthorization of the fund, and marshaled bipartisan support to include a three-year extension of the program in the spending bill passed Friday. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, joined Bennet in the push and the result is a welcome reprieve for the beloved program that has helped fund segments of the Animas River Trail, the Bodo Park State Wildlife Area, several city of Durango park investments, and an expansion of Hillcrest Golf Course. With the LWCF reauthorization, which includes $450 million for the 2016 fiscal year, communities across the country can look forward to continued investment in outdoor assets.
The Payment in Lieu of Taxes program is essential for communities with large expanses of federal lands upon which no property tax is levied. La Plata County certainly qualifies, with 432,915 such acres, for which PILT paid the county $538,955 this year. That money is critical to helping cash-strapped counties fund schools, infrastructure and other services that property tax is used to support. Congress has long recognized the PILT’s importance, but the program has not had a legislative home for several years, making it vulnerable to expiration on several occasions. By including it in the omnibus spending bill for 2016, and fully funding it at $452 million, lawmakers have provided communities that rely on the program some budgetary breathing room for the coming fiscal year.
Both LWCF and PILT are programs that should be permanently reauthorized so as to protect them from the rancor that too often compromises legislative progress - particularly on matters that are, or should be, non-controversial. While the spending bill passed Friday gives the programs a reprieve, lawmakers must push ahead to ensconce them both in federal law for the duration. Bennet’s leadership thus far has been critical to the victories achieved Friday; it will be essential to longer term progress. In the meantime, Congress has achieved a major milestone with welcome fallout for La Plata County.
Denver Post, Dec. 19, on pushing for education reforms:
Consensus-seeking Rich Crandall may be the right pick as Colorado’s next education commissioner - a position with little power but important duties - but we would have hoped for more enthusiasm for two of the state’s key educational reforms.
In interviews last week with Colorado media, including The Denver Post’s editorial board, the amiable Crandall expressed reservations about the state’s PARCC test and teacher accountability law.
Eric Gorski of Chalkbeat Colorado writes that Crandall in an interview signaled an openness to move Colorado away from Common Core education standards and its membership in PARCC, the multi-state testing effort that measures whether students are absorbing those standards.
Perhaps that’s inevitable given that five of the seven members of the Colorado Board of Education, which is hiring Crandall, indicated a desire earlier this year to pull out of PARCC. Still, with only one year of the testing under the state’s belt, such a move would be premature.
Crandall, 48 and father of seven, is finalist for the job that pays around $245,000. Crandall was a school board member in Mesa, Ariz., and a senator in the Arizona legislature where he focused on educational issues. In 2013, he briefly was chief of Wyoming’s Department of Education.
As a lawmaker, Crandall advocated for Arizona to adopt the Common Core standards. Nevertheless, he now says Arizona did the right thing by canceling its contract with PARCC.
“They said, ‘We want to control our own destiny. We want to add questions, take questions away. We want to craft what is best for our state,’ ” Crandall told Chalkbeat. “That is my position now. Let’s craft what is best for our state.”
Common Core standards and PARCC tests that were built by more than 40 states raised the academic bar and are expected to help prepare students for college or careers after school.
Could they benefit from tweaking or revisions? Probably. But dismantling the program and finding a worthy replacement would be a major, costly undertaking.
Additionally, in an interview with The Denver Post, Crandall said he thinks there are problems in how states are using student academic growth in teacher evaluations.
“No state has proven a model to say specifically you’re 98.2 percent responsible for the growth of this child. And that is probably not possible to do,” he said.
Maybe so. And maybe Senate Bill 191, the legislation that created Colorado’s evaluation system nearly six years ago and has yet to be fully implemented, needs some constructive adjustment. But it’s hard to believe student progress shouldn’t figure somehow into the evaluation mix.
The commissioner’s role is one of implementing policy, not making it. Nevertheless, as the debate over education continues in Colorado, now is not the time to walk away entirely from these important reforms.
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