News & Features

Lawmakers Say School Choice Rule Doesn’t Follow Bill’s Aim

The legislation allows tax credits for individual donations of up to $150 to private school scholarships

HELENA — A majority of Montana lawmakers believe the state Department of Revenue did not follow the Legislature’s intentions when the agency wrote a rule barring religious schools from benefiting from a new tax-credit program, according to a poll released Monday.

The poll of the Legislature, a little-used tool to challenge administrative rulemaking, found 88 state legislators said the Revenue Department’s rule is contrary to the bill that passed earlier this year. Fifty-one said it was consistent and 11 did not return ballots.

The poll was released during a meeting of the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee.

The legislation allows tax credits for individual donations of up to $150 to private school scholarships or to innovative educational programs in public schools, up to $3 million for the first year. The aim was to find ways to improve funding for private and public schools, bill sponsor Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, has said.

However, the agency’s proposed rules excluded religious schools from the program on grounds that the Montana Constitution bars appropriations to religious schools, organizations or affiliated groups.

There are more than 145,000 students in public schools and an estimated 7,200 in private schools in Montana. Most private schools in the state have religious affiliations, education officials have said.

The poll will have no effect on the rule, but the results will be published alongside the final rule, which goes into effect Jan. 1. The results can be used as evidence in a future lawsuit challenging the rule.

Revenue officials and legislators have said they expect the issue to go to court.

As of last year, 15 states had some version of a scholarship tax credit program, which is an alternative to school voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The last time a poll of the Legislature was conducted was in 2005. State law requires a poll if 20 or more lawmakers object to a proposed rule while the Legislature is out of session.

This is the second poll of the Legislature requested this year. Lawmakers also have requested a poll to determine whether Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl followed legislative intent in his rules overhauling the state’s campaign finance practices.