By Tim Leeds
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said what has come out of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education has him a little concerned.
He said if they do not increase state contributions in the first year of the biennium, the schools will be beset by infinite pressures, not the least of which is increasing energy costs, as well as pressure for higher teachers' salaries and budget caps due to enrollment.
"You'll end up with less education services because you can't provide as much, and it will cost local taxpayers more," Jergeson said.
He said he wanted a 3 percent increase in the first year, but that was unacceptable to the Republicans on the subcommittee. He and his fellow Democrat on the Committee, Rep. Rosalie "Rosie" Buzzas of Missoula, voted for higher increases for education, Jergeson said, but the votes were split along party lines, 4-2.
Tuesday the subcommittee approved increases in funding of $375,000 in fiscal 2002 and $15.2 million in fiscal 2003, or zero percent then 3 percent increases.
Jergeson said he knows there is a real problem in education funding, and something needs to be done.
"It's not a matter, quite frankly, of whining educators, zero percent won't even pay the energy increases," he said.
He said what he is hearing is that the Republican-dominated legislature is only willing to increase education funding if the Montana voters will approve a tobacco-tax increase by referendum next fall. He said Gov. Judy Martz told him she will not sign any tax increase into law, even if it doesn't affect Montana taxpayers at all, such as a bed tax increase refunded to Montana taxpayers.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said he doesn't think turning taxes over to the Montana voters is a good idea. He said it's the legislators' job to deal with taxes, and to turn it over to the voters is a cop-out.
Jergeson said tobacco taxes are a dead-end revenue source anyway. He said if increasing the taxes has its desired effect and reduces the number of smokers, the amount of revenue will decrease. He said this has happened in the past. To think increasing the tobacco tax will provide a stable, long-term revenue source just doesn't compute, Jergeson said.
He said they begin the hearings on funding the Montana University System next, but he's not optimistic about that either.
"I think there's going to be more 4-2 votes," Jergeson said.
Tester said helping university funding is also extremely important at this point, to prevent increasing tuition becoming a necessity.
"Right now, it's cheaper to go to North Dakota than to MSU or UM or MSU-Northern, tuition-wise," he said.