Major school-funding bill scheduled for House hearing; amendments coming

2013-03-28T16:56:00Z 2013-04-11T11:48:05Z Major school-funding bill scheduled for House hearing; amendments comingBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
March 28, 2013 4:56 pm  • 

HELENA — The session’s major school-funding bill, which easily passed the Senate more than a month ago, finally has a hearing scheduled in the House — but it will be amended, its sponsor said this week.

“We seemed to have reached an agreement on a packet of amendments that will keep the bill alive,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “I think Senate Bill 175 will be a part of the final solution (for schools). I still believe that.”

As approved by the Senate, SB175 had a $120 million price tag, including nearly $50 million in property tax reductions.

Republican legislative leaders generally opposed it as too expensive, and some felt it also increased state funding for schools too much. In the Senate, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans approved the bill.

House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, sat on the bill for several weeks but said in a recent interview that he was working on amendments with Jones.

Now the bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee, which has scheduled an April 8 hearing.

The amendments, which will be presented at the hearing, reduce the bill’s two-year cost to about $70 million, including $57 million of additional state funds for public schools and related programs.

The bill includes an inflationary increase in state funds for schools and a higher lump-sum payment for all schools, tied more closely to each district’s enrollment.

With the amendments, the bill would freeze local school property taxes for the next two years, rather than cutting them, at a cost of about $13 million to the state.

Montana’s education community remains solidly behind the bill and has been involved in crafting the amendments, Jones said.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing teachers, said Thursday that he thinks the bill will pass — but that it’s bound to be amended during the final weeks of the Legislature.

“The amendments significantly reduce its costs, which we all knew was going to happen eventually,” he said. “If the governor is going to sign any sort of quality education bill, it’s going to have to be this one, because his own bill has been reduced to almost nothing.”

The House passed Gov. Steve Bullock’s school-funding proposal Thursday, but it includes only inflationary increases for state funding for public schools.

Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, who chairs the House Education Committee, said Bullock’s measure is a “back-up bill,” and that her panel will concentrate on the Jones bill.

However, she said Thursday that SB175 is a complex measure that will face plenty of scrutiny in the House.

“There are some really good policy changes (in the bill) that I like a lot; there are some policy changes that I don’t like,” she said.

Jones said he’s confident the bill can survive, but he acknowledged that it has some work ahead of it.

“I’m sure, as in all bills, there will be hurdles and challenges,” he said. “But it’s alive, it’s viable. And it has some strong champions that want to see it succeed.”

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