By Tim Leeds
With a combination of decreasing property tax valuation and what is likely to be the first major mid-year drop in enrollment in four years, administrators from the Havre Public Schools have said they hope the Montana Legislature will support Rep. Carol Juneua's bill, HB31, to increase K-12 public education funding.
In a finance meeting before the December Havre school board meeting, Director of Operations Ric Floren said that the Havre system could be facing a loss of more than $235,000 in the elementary district and more than $240,000 in the high school district. He said he hopes the Legislature will support increased funding for the schools. Juneau's bill meets requests from Montana education organizations, with a 4 percent increase in base and per-student funding in the first year of the biennium and a 7 percent increase in the second, and increased special education funding.
Area legislators have said that they do support increased funding, if the money for it can be found.
Rep.-elect Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, said he supports the education system, and he would like to try to increase aid. He said, however, it's a question of how to pay for it.
"A lot of groups out there need more money," he said. "I just don't know where it's coming from. Everybody wants to increase state aid. It still comes from property tax and income tax."
Wolery said finding the funding will probably mean examining a state sales tax, but that that idea has such a poor history in the state, he doesn't think it would pass. He said University of Montana President George Dennison's proposal of a sales tax applying only to tourists bears examination.
Wolery supports increased funding for the system, he said, but not if it means increasing taxes on local property owners.
"I think their backs are about to break," he said.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said he's supportive of the requests from the state education systems. He said it will meet state obligations and stop the shift of the taxes onto the local taxpayers.
"I think it's the most appropriate way to come to grips with the funding situation," he said.
Jergeson said finding the funding for the increased budgets is just a matter of setting priorities. He said giving the Department of Corrections a 16 percent increase while giving education a 1.4 percent increase, as Gov. Marc Racicot's budget does, or a .9 percent increase, as Gov.-elect Judy Martz's budget does, might not be the right priority. He said corrections has already received enormous increases over the years.
"Have we met that responsibility and should concentrate on other obligations?" he asked rhetorically.
Jergeson said there are other areas that funds could be freed from as well. He said the 4 and 7 percent increases might not be possible, but some increase could be made.
"I'm not sure there will be enough to generate the full amount," he said. "I think we need at least a down payment on the request."
Rep. Ray Peck, D-Havre, and Rep.-elect John Musgrove, D-Havre, who will be taking Peck's place representing House District 91, also said it doesn't look like there will be enough revenue to fully fund HB31.
Peck said that until the budget projections are settled, there is no way to be sure how much funding will be available. He said the Department of Corrections is $15 million over budget right now. Until the new director of the corrections department is chosen and there is some idea what will happen in that department, "that leaves the budget up in the air," Peck said.
"If I was guessing," he said, "you'd probably have to cut those K-12 figures in half."
Musgrove said they will have to be competing with other programs that need additional funding as well.
"It's going to be a fight," Musgrove said. "In fact, everyone's going to lose because of the financial situation. If two hungry people are fighting over a bone and one gets it, is that fair?"
Musgrove said something needs to be done for education, however.
"Business as usual is not going to be good enough for education," he said, "because we have been shortchanged financially for at least the last 10 years that I know of."