Senate Narrowly Endorses Republican School Funding Bill

Posted on March 22, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad

HELENA – A Republican plan to fund K-12 education by redistributing oil and gas revenues earned a hard-fought endorsement in the Senate Tuesday.

The victory came in a 25-24 initial vote, despite heavy Democratic criticism of the plan’s complexity and after nearly two hours of debate. It should face a final vote soon.

Senate Bill 403, by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is the GOP replacement for Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s plan to transfer about $76 million in oil and natural gas revenue from some school districts to fund public education statewide.

SB 403 would take about half that amount of oil money and combine it with a host of one-time transfers to give schools slightly more money and establish a financial incentive program based on school performance.

“This is a very complicated bill and I admit it,” said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. “I have lived and breathed it for four months with Senator Jones.”

Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, echoed concerns about the bill’s complexity but said it would treat oil and gas revenue like money the state receives from timber and mining. It would create a more  equitable funding structure so all children could benefit from the riches of the state, he added.

“It shouldn’t make a difference what side of the fence a kid grows up on,” Zinke said.

Democrats criticized both the bill’s complexity and its creation of the $11 million merit program. Many asked how the Legislature could justify creating a new program while the Senate Finance and Claims Committee recently approved sweeping cuts to the budget as a whole.

Democrats also raised questions as to whether Jones’ bill would fulfill the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of equal access to education for all.

Peterson said the debate was not the last time senators would be seeing the bill. He said he expects the House will change it meld it with other bills, which would come back to the Senate for further consideration.

The measure is a key part of the Republican budget strategy, which the Schweitzer administration has roundly criticized and all but threatened to veto.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

Posted in: Daily Grind