Montana GOP Pitches Education Funding Rewrite

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A complicated rewrite of the state’s school funding scheme from Republicans — which aims to increase education funding a little more than even the governor sought — faces an uncertain future after a close Senate vote Tuesday.

The measure, which aims to fix a complicated school funding system that few understand with a 51-page bill that even fewer can fully explain, has stiff opposition from Democrats — and even a fair amount of skepticism from Republicans in the House.

The measure was barely endorsed in a key 25-24 Senate vote. One Democrat was absent for the day, setting up the possibility the measure could stall in a subsequent vote scheduled for Wednesday.

“I guess we will see what tomorrow brings,” Sen. Llew Jones, the measure’s chief architect, said Tuesday.

Democrats who prefer the governor’s proposal assailed it as a “crazy” plan that certainly raises taxes in some areas. But Jones and other supporters pitched it as a way to make school funding more equitable in a way that improves the situation for most.

The proposal redistributes some of the oil and gas money from resource rich eastern Montana counties, but not all of it as originally sought by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Some school districts have said they like the proposal for increasing funding without hurting eastern Montana counties too much. But others, including the state school superintendent, argue it needlessly makes a complicated system even more so.

Jones’ bill would increase state support of local school funding by more than 3 percent over the next two years. A good chunk of local oil-and-gas production taxes from a few eastern Montana counties would be redistributed in a way supporters argue is similar to other natural resource revenue. It would also create a “Pathway to Excellence” incentive, giving more money to schools that meet certain benchmarks. That move has drawn the ire of some school officials who don’t believe another monitoring system is needed.

Opponents from some business circles, especially those behind big industrial projects, argue the bill will require local property tax increases on their operations in certain areas with low levels of that taxation.

“This is probably the goofiest bill you ever see in the history here,” Sen. Jim Keane of Butte told fellow Democrats in a meeting before the vote. “It is just crazy if you vote for this thing.”

Supporters said it takes a complicated solution to a complicated problem. They also pointed out Schweitzer’s original proposal would have led to property tax increases in some eastern Montana areas.

“School funding is complex and I know of no more than five people that understand it. And there are only two in this body that even comes close to understanding it and one that does, and that is the sponsor,” said Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish. “The point is this: How do we do it? How do we make a quality education system that is fair?”

Jones, a Republican from Conrad, argued the proposal is a good compromise aimed at equalizing school funding across the state while helping schools that need money. He beat back arguments that it could be declared unconstitutional under the school funding lawsuit successfully brought by school groups several years ago, and said his bill is needed.

“I am sorry that school funding is complex. I did not create it,” Jones said. “That being said, we now have a system that is a little out of balance.”

But House Republicans are reserving judgment until they see the plan, and even removed some of the funding for the proposal from the main budget bill. That body could prefer plans that hurt rural eastern Montana constituents less.

“We have tried very hard to address everyone’s concerns,” said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, assuring colleagues more changes are likely. “The debate on this bill is nowhere near over.”

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