HELENA — Education officials and advocates pressed Montana senators on Wednesday to add money to the state budget where the House wouldn’t, including for the university system, special education, the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind and the Montana Digital Academy.
The Senate Finance and Claims Committee started discussions on the $10.2 billion state budget with education, which accounts for more than half of proposed state spending in 2018-2019.
The panel will hear testimony on other areas of the budget through Monday, with a floor vote tentatively set for next week.
Many of the requests heard Wednesday were turned down by the House when it passed the spending plan last week. Republicans who lead the House were loath to add any more money to a spending plan that seeks to fix a revenue shortfall by reducing government spending for most agencies.
Since the House passed the budget bill, a new forecast was released that predicts the state could see $106 million in additional revenue over the next two years.
Lawmakers from both parties say they will not assume all of that extra money will actually be available, and Republican majority leaders may use any additional revenue to bulk up the state’s cash reserves to protect against future revenue and spending changes.
The funding requests heard by the Senate committee focused mainly on these areas:
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian urged the committee to restore $12.4 million that was cut from the proposed budget in the House. Christian said that large of a cut can’t be filled without raising tuition, reducing student services or a combination of the two. For some institutions that have seen enrollment reductions in recent years, high tuition increases could be “catastrophic,” he said.
Public Schools Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and education association leaders are seeking an increase in special education funding. Arntzen is asking for a one-time boost, while the associations want an inflationary increase to the funding level and an increase in the amount special education cooperatives receive to serve students in multiple rural districts. Arntzen is also seeking the reinstatement of two items cut from schools’ base aid formula, natural resource development payments and Data for Achievement payments.
MONTANA SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF AND BLIND
Multiple people urged the Senate panel to restore funding cuts and the proposed elimination of three to four staffers from the Great Falls school that is completely funded by state government. School employee Ray Sevrie, who is deaf, said the specialty school gives students opportunities they wouldn’t normally have.
MONTANA DIGITAL ACADEMY
Many advocates asked the committee to restore the proposed $1.7 million decrease for the digital academy, which represents 41.6 percent of the academy’s funding. The school offers online classes to students in schools where such courses may not be available.
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