When it comes to how state government spends your tax dollars, which of the following areas do you think should be the highest priority?
K-12 public school education, higher education including vo-tech, assistance programs for the poor, social programs for the aged and disabled, prisons and other law enforcement or other programs.
A poll sponsored by the Montana School Boards Association and Montana Rural Education Association asked that question of 700 Montanans this month. The response was overwhelmingly K-12 public education. Across all age groups, political parties, small and large towns, the majority of respondents — 60.5 percent — said K-12 should have highest priority. The next largest percentage was for programs for the aged and disabled at 11.3 percent.
Although the poll was sponsored by two Montanan organizations that advocate for public schools, it was conducted by Zogby International, a reputable polling firm, which reports the poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
How will such public support for public education affect Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the 2011 Legislature's funding decisions?
Presenting his executive budget last week, Schweitzer said: “The top-line numbers are, we are going to increase funding for K-12 and higher education, and we are going to cut taxes and we are going to increase jobs.”
His proposed “increase” for next year would put next year's K-12 per-district and per-pupil aid a fraction of a percentage point below what it is for this year. That's because the governor's budget is based on ongoing funds for schools, which is the way the state budget usually is prepared.
However, in 2009, Schweitzer and the Legislature used federal stimulus money to provide K-12 schools with a 2 percent increase in per-district and per-pupil aid. That “one time only” money didn't count in calculating the next biennial budget.
According to a preliminary analysis by Jim Standaert of the Legislative Fiscal Division, under Schweitzer's budget proposal, Montana schools next school year “will get slightly less budget authority” than they did this year.
As Standaert noted, for each district, the actual impact depends on enrollment. A district where enrollment increased would receive more per-pupil aid. And districts with decreasing enrollment would see less money.
Schweitzer's budget, including his K-12 proposals, will get intense scrutiny from a Republican legislative majority concerned about staff projections that the state could run more than $300 million short over the next two years, based on revenue and expense estimates.
To cover his K-12 spending proposal, Schweitzer's budget includes taking $20 million out of a school facilities fund and distributing oil and gas revenues that have been going only to local schools to districts throughout the state. Both the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association are opposed to redistributing the county oil and gas revenues.
MTSBA Executive Director Lance Melton points to the $30.7 million in K-12 education money that Congress and President Obama recently designated for Montana in the latest jobs law. That money helped shore up the state general fund, but like the Otter Creek Coal bonus payment Schweitzer banked earlier this year, it didn't directly affect school funding.
The point for education advocates — that's most of us — is to pay attention. Ask your local superintendent what will help the schools that your children, grandchildren and neighbor kids attend. Visit with your locally elected school trustees. And don't be shy about telling your legislators what you think.
Monday morning forum
One good opportunity for talking with lawmakers is happening again at 7 a.m. Monday. Montana State University Billings is hosting community forums at its downtown campus, 208 N. Broadway. Individuals and groups from this area may schedule 20-minute presentations on legislative issues by contacting Dan Carter at MSU Billings, phone 657-2269, e-mail email@example.com. Lawmakers from Yellowstone and neighboring counties are invited to attend.
Last week's session drew about three dozen people, including more than a dozen lawmakers.
Yellowstone County really needs its delegation to get together. The 140,000 residents of the state's most populous county deserve strong representatives who will work collaboratively for the benefit of our growing community.