Education Groups Say Budget Too Thin

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget was criticized Monday by education advocates for spending too little on schools — while Republicans said it spends too much.

The Montana School Boards Association is telling members the governor’s proposed budget will force school districts to cut programs or seek increases in local property taxes. Executive Director Lance Melton is urging them to contact legislators in hopes they’ll be persuaded to spend more on schools.

“We’re disappointed,” Melton said. “We think K-12 public education should be one of the most important priorities of government.”

Schweitzer unveiled his budget over the weekend. Overall, it reduces spending by rolling back one-time expenditures. But ongoing government programs go up close to 10 percent over two years.

It includes no tax increases, nor does it hold any tax cuts or rebates.

Schweitzer describes it as an austere budget for tough times. His office points out that education, one of the biggest pieces of state spending, also gets much of the new money available for the next two years.

“Education is a priority,” said spokeswoman Sarah Elliott. “The budget is balanced and reflects the current financial times. Like most Montana families the state will have to watch its money carefully.”

Republicans, however, said they likely will want to reduce the governor’s proposed spending.

Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said the sharp decline in oils prices could hurt tax collections from that industry, and the recession could further hurt income tax collections.

“It’s going to require some very careful analysis and scrubbing of the governor’s budget,” said Peterson, who will be Senate majority leader when the Legislature convenes in January. “There’s no question that we are looking at some tough times ahead.”

Peterson also said Republicans now in control of the state Senate will also want to look at tax cuts, believing they would help spur economic growth.

The opposing views foreshadow the coming battle in the 2009 Legislature.

Lawmakers were told Monday by revenue analysts the faltering economy is hitting the state’s bottom line. Overall tax collections could drop by about $40 million for Montana’s upcoming two-year budget period. And the projected surplus is down to about $287 million.

In the background is a continuing lawsuit filed by school groups against the state in which they claim Montana has failed to meet previous court orders dealing with the constitutional obligation to provide a quality education.

Melton said the governor’s proposed budget gives schools a far smaller percentage increase in funding compared to the rest of state government.

“What happens is that times get tough, (and) the state decides it is going to take care of the state agencies, but not the local governments and their schools,” Melton said. “What happens is the local taxpayers pick up the slack.”