What will happen with education funding in the waning days of the legislative session was a main topic at a legislative video conference in Havre Wednesday.
Representatives of Havre Public Schools and the university system warned of consequences of proposed funding levels.
“If we’re looking at a 1-percent increase, we’re looking at reductions, ” Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson said. “That’s the reality of where it is. ”
On the university side, Chinook resident Greg Jergeson said there are consequences to the current $32-million cut proposed for the higher education budget.
“I understand it’s a student tuition increase on the magnitude of 18 to 26 percent, and that’s a consequence of the decisions that are being made in this Legislature, ” he said.
“You are absolutely correct. That is absolutely the case, ” said Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre. “And $32 million to the university system … I see it unlikely that it would be restored.
“I also understand that we can’t fund everybody at the levels they want, ” she added.
Hansen said no one knows exactly what will come out of the conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.
“Until the conference committee gets through its work on Friday or Saturday, we don’t know where we’re at, ” she said. Work on new K-12 funding bill
Hansen said a House committee is now working on a bill for funding K-12 education to replace the Senate bill crafted by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, that she said was characterized as “the savior of education.
“That bill died in committee. It didn’t go anywhere, ” she said.
The bill now being drafted is expected to fund K-12 education at close to 2011 levels, she said.
An amendment that was being worked on Wednesday would have added $15 million to $20 million, or about a 1-percent increase over 2011 levels, she said.
“Please remember that this is the first step in the first House committee, ” she added. “I have no idea where it will go from there. ”
Carlson said that with only a 1-percent increase for inflation, that would mean reductions for the Havre district.
“There are a lot of tough decisions that are facing us. Decisions about programs and personnel, ” he said. “When you look at personnel being 85 percent of your budget, there’s not a lot of other places to look. Our buildings don’t decrease in size. Our utilities don’t decrease, they’re going up. ”
Carlson praised the bill drafted by Jones, saying its being voted down cost the Havre district $400,000.
Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, said Jones is working with the House committee to offer some points from his bill.
“It was a sad day for education in the Senate when Llew Jones’s bill got tabled, ” Hutton said. “Three Republicans from the eastern side (of Montana) voted against it — I completely understand why they had to do it — but the other side of the aisle is completely locked up. ”
Hansen said a main issue is how to handle oil and gas revenue. The governor’s proposal put all school district oil and gas revenue into a pot to be shared across the state. His budget increase was almost entirely funded by that method, she said.
Jones’ bill did the same, but at a significantly lower percentage.
The main issue now being discussed in the House committee is whether to do the same at an even lower percentage, she said. Warnings on university budget cuts
Lynn Hamilton of Havre, a member of the Board of Regents of Higher Education, asked about the chance of restoring cuts made to the university system.
“We’re $32 million under water here, ” she said.
Hansen said she has not heard anything about restoring university funding. If funds were restored to the budget, she said, she expects it would first go to services for the elderly or for people with disabilities.
“That’s my gut feeling, ” she said. “I don’t know about that for sure, but that's what I would expect. ”
She said many people in the House feel the state building bonding bill — which had $7.9 million for a new automotive and diesel technologies building at Northern restored — will get university through for this time.
“I think it’s important to remember that the bonding bill is a wonderful jobs stimulator, ” Hamilton said. “It’s certainly something that we need in Havre ….
“But we have 5,000 additional students in the system we didn’t have. It’s going to be a real challenge.
“Change is a wonderful thing, but business as usual isn’t going to happen with a 32- million deficit, and it can have serious, both programmatic implications and campus, implications. ” she added.
Jergeson commended the local lawmakers for their work to restore funding for the automotive-diesel building, and for $400,000 for Northern’s biodiesel research program.
But a $32-million cut to the system would translate to a $2-million to $3-million cut in Northern’s budget, he said.
“That’s the money they use to turn the lights on and to pay the faculty and to pay the staff, ” Jergeson said. “You’re going backwards in the budget that your Legislature is putting together for this institution. ”
Hamilton said if the budget doesn’t change, tuition increases and program cuts would eliminate access for some students.
“And that’s what we don’t want to do in Montana if we really are talking about jobs and keeping the economy back on track, ” she said.
Limited funds for all
Hutton said the Legislature is working with a limited amount of funds.
“The phrase that comes to my mind, once again, is, ‘you can’t get blood out of turnip, ’” he said.
He said he and the other legislators from north-central Montana will do what they can to make sure Northern is not cut out of the funding process. But, he added, not everything can be done the way they want.
“Everybody comes to the table palms-up wanting more, and, unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to fund everything the way we want to. ”