By Ron VandenBoom
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, and Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook were working Wednesday to try and keep alive what might have been the only piece of legislation left that could have substantially increased education funding during this session of the Montana Legislature.
But their efforts were all for naught when the Senate Finance Committee torpedoed the bill by a vote of 10-8.
To what extent SB-500 might have helped cure education's woes is still unknown and how quickly it might actually have gotten funds into the system is also suspect.
SB-500 a measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Glaser, is what Tester said Wednesday should probably be considered as a "supplemental bill" to HB-121.
HB-121 emerged as the only remaining education bill house lawmakers are considering since the $67 million HB-31 was sent to the bottom after a 12-6 broadside vote by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Proposed by Gov. Judy Martz, HB-121 originally provided for only $13 million in increases during the second year of the biennium, but recent efforts by house lawmakers to increase that figure has added about $6 million more to the total.
HB-500 used no money from the state's current general fund and was described by Jergeson last week as, "a funding formula kind of superimposed over the existing formula."
The bill established a "school flexibility program" for K-12 that required voter approval for a levy to increase a district's funds to support it. The bill also increased basic entitlements and the per-ANB entitlements by 1.3 percent.
HB-500 also created a resident student funding bonus that Jergeson said could pump about $7 million into the university system.
Proponents of the bill speculated that about $40 million in new funding could be designated to support the bill from a proposed tobacco tax referendum, a car rental tax, a telecommunication tax increase, or as Jergeson suggested, upping the state's business equipment tax back up to 6 percent with an exclusion for the first $50,000 in new equipment.
Several of these proposals however fly in the face of Martz's long-standing pledge of "no new taxes" and could well have doomed the bill to a governor's veto anyway. The suggestion of new increases on telecommunications has also met with objections from the telecommunications industry who said Montana taxpayers are already paying enough.
Tester said the tobacco tax referendum could also be of little real value this biennium because it needs to be approved by the voters and "the money might not be available for some time." Possibly not before the start of the next legislative session.
Sen. Glaser is also recently quoted as having said he thinks supporters of the bill are being dishonest by suggesting the money is available to fund that level of increase.
Jergeson however disagreed that SB-500 is unfundable and said it should have been supported as it was constituted if people that claim to support education were serious about it.
"I don't think the senate ought to give up that option," he said. "The components are out there to make it work."
Jergeson said he has noticed the Republican controlled legislature is still going ahead with more tax break bills that will create a tax structure problem for the next session of the legislature.
He said he finds it ironic that the same people who want to give tax breaks this session, which will create revenue shortages for the next legislature, are the same people claiming they can't adequately fund education this time.
Jergeson said that he has been impressed with the bipartisan nature of the Senate Education Committee and in the way they have worked with SB-500.
The vote to kill the bill went along party lines.
Tester was slightly less adamant about SB-500 than Jergeson explaining that he was concerned about wording in the bill that seems to favor bigger schools over some of the smaller schools. He was also concerned that the bill seems to detail specifically what the funds could be used for at the local level.
"I'm a firm believer in local control," Tester said. "Just give us the money and we'll decide what it should be used for."
Before SB-500 went back to committee for additional work Wednesday, Tester said he believed the bill would eventually be trimmed to be somewhat comparable to HB-121 in the amount funding.
"What we really need is long term planning," Testers said. "Something that will lay a plan for 10 years into the future."
Tester said that so far the only piece of legislation that comes close to providing for long-range planning is Democratic Rep. John Musgrove's, HB-625.
HB-625 provides for an interim study commission that would make recommendations on educational funding to the 58th Legislature in two years.