By Ron VandenBoom
The status of two education funding bills topped the list of concerns expressed by Kirk Miller, superintendent of Havre Public Schools, Tuesday during the first legislative conference call of the season at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
Miller told area legislators if Havre was going to continue on the road to school improvement started four years ago, adequate funding for the Board of Public Education is critical.
Two bill are currently being considered by the Montana Legislature. House Bill 31 contains the larger increases of 4 percent in dollars per student and basic entitlements the first year and a 7 percent increase the second year. Senate Bill 70 offers 3.3 percent the first year and 2.5 percent the second year. Both bills contain increases for Special Education.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, told Miller he supports the 4 and 7 percent increases offered in HB 31.
"The only question is, where will the money be," Jergeson said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, agreed with Jergeson adding that money is the key.
"The budget's getting tight," Tester said. "I think that unless something happens with the budget, we're in trouble. Something is going to have to be prioritized in the budget in order to give those kinds of increases to education."
Jergeson and Tester agreed that it appears more likely at the moment that SB 70, with its smaller increases, will be the bill that passes.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher asked the legislators about House Bill 54 a measure proposed by Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, that would allow people to register to vote at the polls on Election Day. Kaercher said he had heard the proposal had received a favorable response from the Judiciary Committee.
"We don't see how we are going to be able to police that," Kaercher said.
Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, told Kaercher he sits on the Judiciary Committee and that the bill has not yet left committee.
"I shouldn't predict, but I don't believe it will get out of committee," Wolery said.
Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway expressed his concern that a grant for $100,000 from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to inspect and repair the dam at lower lake was placed 43rd on the funding list. He told the legislators that he had heard only the top 38 projects would receive funding.
"Why was our dam ranked 43 behind five other applications," Conway asked. "We do have some immediate concerns."
None of the legislators could provide Conway with an answer except to suggest there may have been a mistake.
Tester told Conway if the project is not funded by the legislature, the county could possibly receive funding through the DNRC in the form of a no-interest loan.
A bill introduced by Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, that would convert Highway 2 into a four-lane interstate is supported by all of the legislators participating in the call. All of the legislators also agreed the bill stood little chance of passing.
Jergeson said that he believes the bill has already been a good "wedge" to get the Department of Transportation to talk seriously with them about the condition of Highway 2.
The DOT is now paying particular attention to doing something about the section of road between Chinook and Harlem, he said.
Jergeson also said the project price tag currently stands at about $122 million "and I don't see that happening."
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said he recently became aware that Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, was carrying a petition dealing specifically with the road between Chinook and Havre.
All four Havre area legislators agreed improvements to the highway are needed and said they were grateful there was movement in that direction. But none of the legislators believe House Bill 54 stands much chance of passing.
"But I don't know," said Tester. "I never thought Kitzenberg would be able to get a warm water fishery at Fort Peck either."