By Ron VandenBoom
HELENA - With only a few days left before the Montana Legislature breaks for a five-day mid session recess, freshman Rep. John Musgrove, D. Havre, sees bipartisan support for increased funding of education, but budget concerns may thwart the best of intentions.
Musgrove, in a telephone interview Monday, said the latest figures he's heard indicate a budget surplus of only about $12 million - a figure gained by whittling away at numerous programs by different committees during the first half of the session.
The legislature is supposed to carry a safety net surplus of $50 million over the biennium to cover emergency expenses such as paying the cost of fighting forest fires. With the legislature still needing to come up with about $38 million in spending cuts, planning increases in education spending is risky at best.
The bill offering the greatest increase in education funding, and the one that Musgrove would currently like to see passed, is HB-31 sponsored by Carol Juneau, D. Browning. HB 31 is the larger of two bills being considered by the House. It would grant a 4 percent increase in funding for the 2001-2002 and would increase funding in 2002-2003 by 7 percent - a total increase of about $67 million over the biennium.
"I think education really is a bipartisan issue this time," Musgrove said, adding that this has not always been the case and that steady declines in real dollars over the last 10 years has hurt education.
Musgrove admitted that thanks to budget constraints it may be impossible to pass the Juneau bill even with bipartisan support.
Other candidates for education funding are Gov. Judy Martz's HB-121, which in its current form would increase funding by $13 million during the second year of the biennium and SB-70 which would increase funding more than the Martz bill, but would still fall short of HB-31.
Musgrove said this year's unexpected shortfall in the budget is due to a combination of factors including last summers forest fires, tax reductions approved by past legislatures, additional spending approved during last year's special session, and a general decline in Montana's economic health.
"But I don't see where trying to lay the blame does any good right now," he said. "It's time to stop the blame game and work together to solve the problem."
Musgrove said that part of the blame might be found in the way we fund education. He is sponsoring LC 1465 - an interim study on the funding of education. It is an effort to find a new and more equitable way to fund schools. Musgrove said he was asked to sponsor the bill by the Office of Public Instruction.
Marathon hours are the rule this week as the 57th legislature works dawn to past dusk to prepared as much legislation as possible for transfer from one house to the other.
Musgrove said that as of Monday, the house has completed 102 bills and about 150 more have to be completed by Friday. The only exceptions are bills that deal with appropriations.