Lawmakers Float Two New Solutions to Fund K-12 Schools

Posted on April 6, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — The session-long problem of school funding became a multiple-choice question Wednesday as Republicans in both the Senate and the House scrambled to patch together different solutions.

A House committee stuffed a spending plan into Senate Bill 329. The move would give Montana’s K-12 schools about half of their calculated inflation costs and increase the state’s portion of public school funding by 1 percent over two years.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s plan would fully cover inflation costs and increase state spending on schools by 2 percent over the same period. The Senate Finance and Claims Committee split its plan between two House bills, HB 316 and HB 611.

The scurrying is in response to a long debate over how much oil and gas revenue should be redistributed statewide to help pay for public education. Senate Republicans thought Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal took too much from resource-rich parts of the state,  so they created their own  plan.

But not all Republicans in the Senate backed that measure, and with the Democratic minority holding out for more money, the effort fizzled, leaving it up the House to forge a school funding bill.

But as a House committee appeared deadlocked Wednesday, the Senate Finance and Claims committee hurried to resurrect bits of its plan, tweaking some elements and plugging them into House Bills 316 and 611.

However, by late afternoon the House committee had managed to  fashion a compromise that would transfer about $17.6 million in oil and gas revenues from resource-rich districts over the next two years.  The Senate bill would transfer  $34.6 million in such funds.

Neither proposal, lawmakers said, would result in local property tax increases in oil – and gas-bearing counties

The hangup in the House committee came as more conservative Republicans argued for less spending on schools.

Even after the bill was altered to give schools half the cost of inflation and a lower increase, Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, argued that the state didn’t have the money to spend.

And while Democrats at the table  vehemently opposed the tighter numbers, Wagner advised them to sign on because it was the best they would get.

“I would suggest you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth here,” Wagner said, “because I’m voting no.”

The action comes as hundreds of Montana school districts try to build their budgets and local mill levies for the next fiscal year.

Some districts have already taken the procedural steps to lay off teachers if the Legislature doesn’t come though with an increase in state support.

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

Posted in: Daily Grind