Accelify Blog

Montana Senate GOP school-funding plan returns with changes (MT)

March 30, 2011

HELENA – Senate Republicans’ public school-funding proposal got another life Thursday, but not before they sent it back to committee to whack out some key provisions, including $12 million and a formula that would have made taxpayers in low-tax school districts pay more.

"Because we couldn’t get enough votes, we’re forced to buy (this bill) down, but education pays," said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the sponsor of Senate Bill 403. "We could have answered this on the floor a day ago."

Jones was referring to Wednesday’s 25-25 tie vote on the measure in the full Senate, which could have advanced SB403 to the House in its original form with a positive vote. Three Republicans and all 22 of the chamber’s Democrats voted against it.

On Thursday, Republicans voted to revive SB403 by reconsidering the tie vote, but then sent it back to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, where amendments were attached to attract some additional Republican votes for the bill.

Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the chairman of the panel, said some Republicans objected that the bill had too much extra state spending for public schools, and that it would cause property tax increases in some districts that currently have low property taxes for schools.

"I’m trying to address some feedback on the bill," he said. "I think this is an excellent bill, I think it’s a good effort to help education, but I gotta get the votes."

Lewis also addressed Democrats who voted against the bill as a bloc: "Those of you who wanted to spend more money, it was real lonely out there – I didn’t see you jumping up (on Wednesday) to press the green light."

In its original form, SB403 increased state funding for schools by about 3 percent, or $44 million over the next two years. The amended version approved by the Senate panel is about $12 million less.

The Senate panel approved the amended version Thursday on a party-line vote, with Republicans in favor, sending it back to the full Senate for another debate and vote this week.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, blasted Republican efforts on the bill Thursday, saying there was "no excuse for speeding through this discussion with this rush to make decisions that were not fully vetted, and they certainly weren’t collaborative."

"The consequences for the schools and what you’ve done here are going to be felt for a long, long time," she continued. "I hope that this isn’t the last conversation we have about education, in this Legislature, because, if it is, it’s a pity."

Jones said later that he met Wednesday evening with Democratic leaders and warned them that if they wouldn’t support SB403 in its original form, that it would have to be cut back to get enough Republican votes to move it out of the Senate.

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SB403 caps oil-and-gas production tax revenues for petroleum-rich districts, redistributes some of that revenue to schools statewide and creates a new "pathways to excellence" program that gives schools a chunk of money to spend, depending on student performance.

The Senate panel on Thursday amended the bill so the oil-and-gas pro visions will expire in 2014, giving the 2013 Legislature a chance to review the policy.

The original bill also had changed the formula for statewide block grants to schools, squeezing down the amounts for some school districts that have very high property values. Most of those districts have a big industrial property owner or high oil-and-gas revenues in the district, and thus very low tax rates for property owners in the district.

But the Senate struck that language Thursday, leaving the block grant distribution under its current formula.

Jones voted against the change: "If you remove this, there will be a whole number of schools out there (that) will get more disparate amounts of block grants. The schools will still get the money, but it will be dis-equal."

He also said he’ll try to convince the House to put the $12 million back into the bill, but that it would be difficult, given the politics of the budget.

"Not only will I have to get the $12 million (back in), I’ve got to steal it from something else," Jones said, predicting that it would be allocated to another program in the coming days.