House GOP Introduces New School Funding Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans running the House Appropriations Committee on Friday restored millions of dollars they had threatened to ax from Montana’s public education budget, but on the condition that the Legislature pass separate measures that would change the way schools are funded.

The plan adopted by the committee would funnel $183.5 million next year and $96.6 million in 2013 into an account dedicated to school funding. The money would come from a variety of one-time account transfers and new sources, including oil and gas revenue that now go exclusively to school districts in eastern Montana where the resources are produced.

“It’s a new approach to funding and guaranteed that it can only go to education instead of having a food fight over general funds,” said chairman Walter McNutt of Sidney.

Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau said the proposal as described would fund her agency nearly to the amount requested under Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget. But, she added, that funding would be contingent on bills that haven’t been introduced and which few people have seen.

Those bills could change in the course of public hearings and legislative debate, putting the education budget at risk, she said.

“I think it’s dangerous to create a plan for K-12 education funding based on contingency plans,” Juneau said.

The money would restore funding to education areas that the committee was considering cutting from Schweitzer’s budget proposal for 2012-2013. The restored funding includes:

— $30 million in adjustments to base aid to bring the Office of Public Instruction’s budget back up to its current budget level.

— $42,937 to make sure the state doesn’t lose $66 million to provide school meals.

— $1 million for adult basic education programs that allow people to earn high-school equivalency degrees.

— $500,000 for the state’s gifted and talented programs.

— $2 million for secondary vocational education programs.

—$2.3 million for the Montana Digital Academy.

Part of the GOP proposal would require school districts that receive oil and gas revenue and whose budgets are more than $1.25 million to give up half of the oil and gas revenue that comes in above their budgets.

About 11 school districts would lose revenue as a result, legislative financial analysts said. The plan is estimated to bring nearly $32 million in additional money for schools statewide over the next two years.

It’s a scaled-down version of a proposal by the Schweitzer administration that would have taken more money from more school districts. That proposal was tabled in a legislative committee, and McNutt said GOP leaders have been working on this plan for more than a month.

“The governor’s plan was to take it all and redistribute it across all schools. I can tell you that’s not palatable,” he said. “This is a huge compromise and an agreement to say yes, we want to be a part of the program. No, we don’t want you to take it all.”

But, he told the committee, eastern Montana should not have to carry the rest of the state and land locked up to development in the other places should be opened.

“We’re hammered and we’re hamstrung and our revenue needs to come from natural resource development,” he said. “We’re going to pay our share. The rest of this state needs to step up to bat.”

A governor’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the GOP proposal.

Other sources of money in the GOP plan to fund education includes minerals royalties, a coal-bed methane protection account, a school-facilities account, rent the state receives for use of riverbeds and one-time transfers from four funds that GOP budget writers described as overfunded.

But getting that money, like the oil and gas revenue, is contingent on four separate bills passing and also the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the state’s favor in a pending appeal challenging whether Montana can collect rent from hydroelectric dams on the state’s riverbeds.

Democratic members of the committee tried unsuccessfully to have the funding restored to the education budget without the contingency bills, but their efforts failed mostly along party line votes.

“A contingency on these things is a train wreck,” Democratic Rep. Robert Mehlhoff of Great Falls said. “If any one of these five moving pieces and a lawsuit goes against us — some of these bills are fairly contentious— then we have nothing.”

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