HELENA — A divided appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday cut proposed education agency budgets by 5 percent or nearly $72 million in general fund money.
The four Republicans on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education voted to make the cuts, while the three Democrats opposed it.
The cuts are part of the plans by the Senate and House Republican majority leadership to reduce the overall general fund budget. Similar 5 percent cuts were made in all of the appropriations subcommittees Tuesday.
The budget for the Office of Public Instruction for local schools was cut $55.1 million and OPI's budget for state activities was cut by nearly $1 million. The Montana University System general-fund budget was reduced by $14.6 million.
However, Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, said the cuts actually amounted to OPI receiving $78 million less and the University System $38 million less than what Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed two-year budget recommended.
Hawks predicted that if the cuts stood, local property taxes would have to be raised $28 million and college students would have to pay 15 percent to 18 percent in higher tuition to get the same level of services.
Top education officials criticized the budget cuts.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said backing down on an adequately funded education system open to all “is not rational” because quality education is “the key to lifting our state out of its recession.”
“A quality public education system is not a short-term stimulus project,” she said.
Juneau said the reduction would result in a loss of jobs in schools, increase class sizes, reduce class offerings and possibly lead to closings of small schools.
“If K-12 education is cut to the quick, it could result in the Legislature not meeting its constitutional duty to fund an adequate education per the Montana Supreme Court,” she said.
Both she and Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Stearns agreed that Schweitzer's budget recommendations were a good starting point.
Stearns cited higher education's role in training future workers in Montana.
“In Montana, 68 percent of the new jobs created in the next 10 years will require some form of secondary education,” she said.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who moved to make the cuts, defended the action.
“This is a starting point,” he said, adding that money may be restored later if state revenue collections improve.
Chairman Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said he doesn't see good economic news on the horizon.
“I wish I could say we're going to climb out of a hole, but I think we're going to skip around along the bottom for a while,” Hollandsworth said.
He said it's easier to cut budgets now and add money back in later.
But Hawks said state tax collections are improving as the Montana economy is picking up, so there's no need to make such drastic cuts.
“It's possible to build a scenario of Armageddon to ramp down projected revenues,” Hawks said. “But the reality is we're dealing with essential services of the state of Montana.”
Jones said it's possible that state tax collections will grow at a faster clip than the Legislature has projected.
“There's a possibility it will rain 30 inches next year, too,” the farmer-businessman said.
Tara Veazey, executive director of the Montana Budget and Policy Committee, criticized the committee's action.
“Cuts of this magnitude really should be done by the light of the day,” she said.