Reporter's Notebook: School-funding overhaul has support in many corners

2013-02-03T00:00:00Z 2013-02-03T05:40:04Z Reporter's Notebook: School-funding overhaul has support in many cornersBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
February 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock’s State of the State address got most of the ink last week at the Montana Legislature, as the Democratic governor defined some sharp differences between himself and the Legislature’s Republican majority.

But on that same Wednesday, in a Senate committee, a bill shaping up as one of the session’s major items rode in on a tidal wave of support from many political corners.

Cary Hegreberg, a lobbyist for the state’s construction contractors, called it “one of the most important jobs bills before the Legislature in many years,” and a “ground-breaking policy shift for Montana.”

Hegreberg joined some two dozen people who stood in line to support Senate Bill 175, which, of all things, is a measure to fund public schools.

But it also offers property tax cuts, money to help Eastern Montana school districts deal with the impacts of runaway oil and gas development, new money for school construction and maintenance, and new ways to track student achievement.

School superintendents, trustees and other officials from Fairview to Billings to Kalispell traveled to Helena to testify for it, saying it’s the best school-funding plan they’ve seen in years.

“I love this bill,” said Dennis Gerke, the superintendent at tiny Centerville, south of Great Falls. “The neat thing about this bill is it brings all of the AA (schools) and A’s and the B’s and the C’s together. … It does something for everyone.”

Several school officials said that while they like the increased state funding it offers schools, which they say is badly needed, they’re even more enthusiastic about its promise to cut local school property taxes.

Michael Magone, superintendent of schools in Lolo, said his district hopes to pass a $10.5 million bond issue to build a new school to replace the 107-year-old structure that sits between U.S. Highway 93 and a gravel pit. District voters haven’t approved a levy since 2008, he said.

“But the idea that Senate Bill 175 will give tax relief to the Lolo citizens may create enough wiggle room that we have a chance at passing (the levy),” he told the Senate Education Committee.

Could SB175, a complex, expensive measure, be the legislative juggernaut it appears to be, and usher in a historic overhaul of Montana’s school funding?

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote on the measure this week and is likely to send it to the Senate floor. After that, it’s anyone’s guess — but it can safely be said that SB175 must travel the usual long, rocky road that any major piece of legislation faces.

All of Montana’s education community is behind it, along with many Democrats and some Republicans. Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau has thrown in her support, testifying for the bill last Wednesday. The governor is noncommittal so far and has his own school-funding proposal up for hearing on Monday.

Conservatives in the Legislature’s Republican majorities won’t like the price tag. The bill increases state funding for public schools by $80 million over two years and contains another $73 million in state funds to finance cuts in local school property taxes across the state, starting next year.

Environmentalists also are opposing the bill, saying it relies too much on oil-and-gas taxes to finance tax cuts, and that that revenue may not be there in the future.

The property tax cuts in SB175 are clearly designed to appeal not only to taxpayers, but also to conservatives in the Legislature who are calling for broad tax relief.

Yet House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers — who thinks the Legislature should “seriously look at permanent tax relief” — said last week it’s way too early to say whether SB175 might be seen as a tax cut vehicle that Republicans would embrace.

“We have to see what product comes over from the Senate before our committees take a look at it,” he said. “It’s going to be ever-changing.”

The sponsor and architect of this bill, Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad, is a Republican — and the bill has some Republican support in the Senate, which is controlled 29-21 by Republicans.

When asked Friday about the bill’s prospects, Jones said it clearly has support, but that he knows many things can derail it.

“I know we can afford this,” he said. “Whether we choose to prioritize this (plan), that is the question, or whether we find a reason to do something else. I plan to be there at the end, saying … this method of student achievement should win the day.”

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