By Ron VandenBoom
Merlin Wolery, the Republican freshman representative from Rudyard, said in a telephone interview Wednesday he believes the mood of the Montana House favors House Bill 31 to fund education, but adds that he's not willing to predict whether it's likely to pass.
HB-31 is the larger of the two bills being considered by the House to fund education granting a 4 percent increase in funding for 2001-02 school year and a 7 percent increase in 2002-03. A total increase of about $66 million over the biennium.
But Wolery said the House Education Committee has yet to take action on the bill and the ultimate say in the matter will come from the House Appropriations Committee that will have to tackle the difficult issue of how to fund the measure with a extremely tight budget.
"Everyone wants to give more," Wolery said. "But you can't give more than you have." Republican Gov. Judy Martz's education bill, HB 121, is also being considered by the House. Martz's bill would grant no increase in school funding during 2001-02 with a 3 percent increase, or about $13 million, for 2002-03.
The problem with the Martz proposal, Wolery said, was that no increase in 2001-02 would actually translate into a decrease in funding to schools. It is a decrease that would, in effect, slice more than $600,000 from Havre's education budget.
Wolery said he will try and get HB 121 amended to include a 3 percent increase for 2001-02, but he is reluctant to say whether he will have any luck getting an amended bill out of committee.
"Our general desire is that we would fund education at the higher level," he said.
Wolery has been successful however, in getting what he calls "an incentive for consolidation" bill out of committee on Wednesday.
HB-488 will reach the floor of the House for full debate sometime next week, Wolery said.
The bill will add three additional years of basic entitlement funding to schools that choose to consolidate. he said.
Currently each school receives a basic entitlement from the state of $206,000. When schools consolidate they receive two entitlements of $206,000 each for three years. HB 488 would extend this double funding to six years with a gradual percentage decrease in funding during the last three years.
Schools would receive 75 percent the fourth year, 50 percent the fifth year, and so on.
Wolery said the bill will provide incentive for consolidation and allow the schools to ease their way into reduced funding instead of "pushing them over a cliff after three years."
No additional funding is required by the state to support the bill and Wolery said the bill seems to have received a lot of support.
Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg's SB 3 that would provide for creation of a four-lane highway across the Hi-Line from the North Dakota border to Idaho, recently rocketed through the Senate after it was amended to remove all funding for the project. The bill was also amended to deny the movement of any funds currently slated for other highway projects for use in the four-lane highway project.
Wolery said he will support the bill when it reaches the House and, since the funding for the bill has been removed, "it is little more than a resolution now and I doubt it will have much trouble passing."
Wolery said he plans on attending a public meeting with Kitzenberg currently scheduled to be held in Havre at the Holiday Village Shopping Center public meeting room at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23.
The public is invited and encouraged to attend this meeting and have their questions and concerns about Kitzenberg's bill answered.