K-12 Funding Bill Takes a Shaky Step Forward in the House

Posted on April 27, 2011



HELENA — Eked is an understatement for how narrowly the House endorsed a measure to fund public education on Wednesday, and tenuous is an overstatement of the bill’s predicament as it waits for a final and confirming vote on Thursday.

The bill passed 50-49, with one Republican absent and one Democrat voting for the measure.

Rep. Sterling Small, R-Busby, was absent for the vote, but if he returns and votes against the bill it will fail. If he returns and votes for it, but Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, changes his mind and votes with his party against the measure, it will fail.

The fate of the bill is uncertain, but how lawmakers from oil country feel about it is very clear. They detest Senate Bill 329.

The measure would transfer about $18 million in oil and gas revenue to school districts statewide during the next two years, and give schools a 1 percent increase for inflation the first year and a 2.43 percent increase in the second.

The bill would allow schools to keep up to 130 percent of their budget in oil and gas revenue. Any amount over that would be transferred to the state for redistribution.

It would also mandate that schools begin using 25 percent of their incoming oil and gas revenue in their first year’s budget, and then slowly grow that percent over the next four years until they were using 55 percent of their incoming oil funds as part of their budgets.

It would not touch any money schools have already salted away from the tax.

It also calls for data to be collected on areas such as student assessments and enrollment. It no longer contains a clause to allow for charter schools.

Wednesday’s House debate had more to do with the value of oil than the value of education. More to the point, though, the issue was who should benefit from the value of the oil under eastern Montana.

Those from that part of the state saw the bill as tantamount to thievery, and accused the bill’s supporters of trying to take something they didn’t own.

“This is redistribution of wealth, greed and selfishness,” said Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby. “Vote no, I’m going to vote no.”

Those from everywhere else saw it as a move toward fairness.

Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, worked on SB 329. He said he sat down with school district administrators from across the state, especially those in oil country, and they all agreed on this plan.

Reichner also said that Montana’s oil does not belong to just those who live directly above it.

“First of all, the east has no right to tax oil,” Reichner said. “School districts don’t tax oil. It’s the state of Montana’s money. Let’s get it straight.”

But Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus, disagreed with those who saw merit in the bill, including House Majority Leader Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings.

“To say this is a fair bill is grossly misguided,” Randall said.

He also said the only reason school officials agreed to it was because it was a lighter “kick in the teeth” than previous versions of the bill.

Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, tried to convince Randall and the others against the bill that this was the best deal oil country was going to get.

He said the measure was “a little bit more of a kick in the teeth”  than it was when it left the House. “But there are folks around this building who want to kick you someplace else other than the teeth on this issue,” he added.

Most Democrats voted against it, but for different reasons than those from the east.

Rep. Robert Melhoff, D-Great Falls, said he couldn’t go along with it because it didn’t take enough money from oil and gas revenues.

An earlier measure would have redistributed $35 million, he said, then it was rejiggered to move $30 million. But that plan went nowhere, and now schools statewide were looking at $18 million, he added.

He said the lesser scheme only causes districts to beg voters for higher levies. The Great Falls School District, he added,  will have to pass a $1 million levy this year.

The bill is scheduled come up for its final and confirming vote in the House on Thursday. It has yet to be scheduled for votes in the Senate.

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

Posted in: Daily Grind