Montana Senate Backs Big School Funding Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state Senate on Friday endorsed a revamp of education funding that both increases school money and cuts property taxes — handing a defeat to conservative Republican leaders in the chamber who fought to undermine the measure.

Senate Bill 175 relies on an influx of natural resource revenue as it provides revenue sought by school officials, while also providing some relief for homeowners.

It would increase school funding and cut property taxes for a total cost of more than $100 million over the two-year budget period. Many districts now complain that they are burdened with oppressive local school levies, and supported the proposed relief.

State Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, spent two years drafting the measure with the help of school officials and ultimately, drew a broad coalition of support for his plan. The Republican said the 47-page measure also makes funding more equitable across the state.

The measure was backed in a 33-16 initial vote Friday with support from almost half of the chamber’s Republicans and all its Democrats. It is seen as a proposal coming from the ideological middle, led by Jones who is known as a pragmatic policy wonk in a place that often rewards political firebrands.

Jones triumphed Friday in staving off amendments — backed by his own party’s leaders in the chamber — that would could have undermined his proposal. Democrats largely sat on the sidelines and watched Republicans who run the chamber argue among themselves.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich argued that it spends too much money on schools, only to see much of his caucus vote in favor of the measure anyway.

Senate President Jeff Essmann unsuccessfully argued that “it is a good bill. But a bill we can’t pay.”

Republican Sen. John Brenden, of Scobey, said education needs funding, but the state faces larger larger fiscal issues with its reliance on federal funding, pension problem and other issues.

“I don’t think there is a money tree in Montana, and I don’t think manna comes down from heaven with money for Montana,”he said.

Supporters called it “landmark legislation” and lauded Jones as the only lawmaker who could pull off such a measure.

Teacher unions are backing the Republican’s bill. So is the Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau. Some conservative-leaning school groups are on board, too.

The measure still faces a final vote in the Senate on Saturday, along with full review in the House.

Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed more traditional methods to increase school funding in the budget period. The governor’s office has said it is closely watching Jones’ proposal.

Supporters of Jones’ proposal on Friday beat back several proposed amendments on the Senate floor that they feared would upset the careful allegiances backing the bill.

The measure tries to guarantee that that the property tax relief would be permanent by saying that if the flood of new oil and gas revenue dries up, the state will make up for the shortfall rather than reverting to local property taxes.

The measure has received some opposition from environmentalists opposed to the way school funding is tied to future oil and gas development. They fear it will be used as an argument to further develop oil.

And some critics, including Republicans supportive of oil, argue that it is wrong to tie school funding to a volatile funding source that could leave state coffers on the hook.

Jones beat back those arguments on the floor by arguing that oil and gas is not much more volatile than other funding sources, such as others tied to farming commodities or corporate income.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.