Montana House panel advances much-changed, scaled-back school-funding bill

2013-04-10T17:32:00Z 2013-04-15T17:21:04Z Montana House panel advances much-changed, scaled-back school-funding billBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
April 10, 2013 5:32 pm  • 

HELENA — The House Education Committee on Wednesday advanced the session’s major school-funding bill, but not before making major changes that reduced its cost and removed provisions that would reduce local school property taxes.

Senate Bill 175, which has had strong support from schools across the state, now heads to the House floor, where it has an uncertain future.

“Once it goes to the floor, I don’t know who’s going to vote for or against it,” said Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, chair of the committee. “My job today was to make (the bill) less expensive. I don’t know where it goes from today.”

Hansen said she’s not sure whether she’ll support the bill, which passed the committee with a unanimous vote.

The committee removed several key sections of the bill, including one that reduced higher lump sum payments to schools by $14 million over two years.

But SB175 still would increase state funding for public schools by $42 million over the next two years. If that amount is added to inflationary increases in another bill, schools would get a nearly 7 percent increase in two-year state funding.

SB175 is sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who has spent the past two years traveling the state and gathering input and support for funding changes that Montana’s diverse array of school districts say they need.

The bill passed the Senate six weeks ago and had its first hearing in the House on Monday, and the House Education Committee attached 10 amendments in an hourlong session Wednesday.

The changes include:

-- Removal of provisions that would use oil-and-gas tax revenue to finance cuts in local school property taxes across the state. The measure initially included up to $40 million in property tax relief; now, it contains none.

Hansen said House Republicans prefer other methods of property tax reduction, such as across-the-board cuts in statewide school taxes and another measure that cuts business property taxes.

-- Scaling back of an increase in lump sum payments to school districts, known as the “basic entitlement.” The amendment reduced the amount in 2014, eliminated the increase in 2015, and cut back the amount that would go to larger school districts.

-- Increasing the amount of oil-and-gas money that can remain with a handful of Eastern Montana school districts where production is occurring.

The committee did not change provisions of the bill that distribute oil-and-gas revenues to more districts impacted by development, and it left intact new payments for school data systems that track student achievement.

Democrats on the panel said while they supported the bill Wednesday, they don’t like amendments that scaled back increases for many school districts that need it.

“I’m a little disappointed in what we’ve done here,” said Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls. “I hope there is more work done on this.”

“This is still an additional $30 million to $40 million on top of what schools have budgeted so far this year,” Hansen replied. “To say we’re not giving anybody else some help there is a little bit of a stretch. I think that’s a pretty good deal.”

Jones said Wednesday that he’ll take a look at the attached amendments and review them with bill supporters.

“I certainly reserve the right as this bill works through the process to work with the K-12 (community) and the governor, to create a bill that serves K-12 education well, while not busting the state’s budget,” he said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who watched as the House panel amended the bill, said later that the committee removed portions of the bill that have generated a lot of support among school districts and others across the state.

“If they believe it’s too much money, they should work with the (bill’s) sponsor, rather than just have a bunch of amendments rammed through,” she said.

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