Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
A local state representative said he believes the legislature can finish its session by Monday’s deadline, but that the state House may not be able to bring back some items cut out of the budget and allocation of federal economic stimulus money. “The last couple of days have been (a time of) pretty contentious issues,” said Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder Belcourt and Rep. Dan Villa, D-Anaconda, who chairs the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, spoke from Helena with Havreites during a video conference held at Robins Administration Building in Havre. Villa told Havre Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Parman that the budget will include a 3 percent increase in base funding for K-12 education in each of the next two years, although how much will be state funding and how much will be one-time-only federal stimulus money is unknown. “You can rely on that 3 percent cash; the problem is building the future budget,” Villa said. The House approved a 3-percent increase in base funding for education coming from state funds. When the budget was reworked in the Senate, that was scaled back to a 1-percent increase, with the other 2 percent made up using federal money through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Villa said negotiations with the Senate will determine how much, if any, of the increase will end up being in one-Time money and how much will be in the regular budget. “In the next 24 to 48 hours we will know where we will be,” he said. Belcourt said the House is not budging on making sure the education system gets the increase, one way or another. “We’re staying firm on three and three,” he said. The Havre Public Schools district has delayed setting how much of a tax increase it will ask voters to approve in a mill levy election that the district rescheduled from the regular May 5 school election until May 26. Parman said after the legislative update that the 3 percent increase is good news. “It’s great. That’s where we hoped to be able to go,” he said. “It’s good news for the local taxpayer.” Parman said the extra 2 percent in state funding will mean the district will ask voters to approve an increase of about $100,000, rather than the quarterof- a-million dollars that would be needed with a 1 percent increase. The problem, he said Wednesday, is that there is no way of knowing how much will be available after the biennium, once the federal money is spent. That could require another large mill levy increase. The forecast was not as good for higher education. Villa told Montana State University- Northern Chancellor Rolf Groseth that the state senators are not budging on a 2 percent across-the-board cut in state agency spending, which translates into about $7.5 million in cuts to the university system. “Their stance is not moving on that,” he said. Groseth said last week that that will require the university system to find other ways to pay expenses, including the possibility of tuition increases. Another hot-button issue, funding the Healthy Kids Montana program passed by state voters with a 70-percent margin last fall, is still up in the air, Belcourt said. The initiative set the eligibility level for providing health insurance to children at 250 percent of the poverty level, up from Montana’s previous 175 percent of poverty level. It proposed providing insurance through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to some 34,000 uninsured Montana children. The program would have moved about $22 million from existing taxes paid by insurance companies to a special account for children’s health insurance, generating about $70 million in matching federal money. Citing the economic turmoil, the Republican-controlled Senate cut the eligibility increase to 200 percent of the poverty level. Belcourt said the House wants to bring back the voterapproved levels, but may not be able to overcome Senate objections. “We’re going to shoot for 250,” he said. “To be realistic, I think we will be at 200 percent.” He added that, because the initiative to increase the eligibility level to 250 percent of the poverty level, if that is not achieved it could be increased in future legislative sessions.