Bipartisan Move Partially Restores School Funding Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A bipartisan coalition in the House restored much of the session’s big school funding bill on Monday, while also limiting its immediate cost.

Senate Bill 175 is the result of a multi-year effort by Republican state Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, and various interest groups to improve the school funding system. It also seeks to reduce the burden on local property taxpayers with the help of natural resource money.

Conservatives opposed to the cost of the bill used their majority in committee to dramatically alter the measure last week. Supporters argued the changes were aimed at killing the measure.

But Democrats joined a group of Republicans on Monday on the House floor to restore much of the original bill and approve it 60-40.They also beat back further efforts from some Republicans to change the measure.

It will cost more than $50 million over the next two years, down from an original price tag of about $200 million. It only promises to freeze local property taxes in the short term, with a promise that the taxes will be reduced through a mechanism that routes new natural resource money to the cause.

Backers have touted the measure as a bipartisan compromise that aims to help schools that struggle with disparate issues.

Many of the Republican House leaders opposed the measure, like they did in the Senate. But like on other key bills so far this session, a coalition of Republicans bucked the interests of party leaders and leveraged the votes of Democrats to advance the measure.

“We have to prepare our young people to go on. And this bill does it,” Republican Rep. Duane Ankney, of Colstrip, said. “It is designed to give our children in this state a good education.”

Supporters even rejected a procedural move after the vote to send the measure to a different House committee, which could have had the effect of killing it due to looming deadlines. Supporters expect it will be approved in one final House vote on Tuesday, then sent to the Senate for it to concur with the House changes.

Other Republicans argued that the measure spends too much, and combined with others advancing in the session, will leave little left for meaningful tax cuts.

“What is the limit here? We are looking at a budget that is a huge increase,” said Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett. “Please, please be more conservative in your view of what money is available and whose money it is.”

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