By Ron VandenBoom
HELENA How much money the legislature will appropriate to fund education for the next two years continues to be a major concern for Hill County's two legislative representatives as HB-121, the legislature's only remaining education funding vehicle, continues to see dollars added only to be stripped away a short time later.
Rep. John Musgrove, D. Havre, and Rep. Merlin Wolery, R. Rudyard, both attended meetings last weekend trying to figure out ways to make HB-121 acceptable to as many of their fellow legislators as they could.
"But it's all gone back to the drawing board," Musgrove said, in an interview in the House Chamber Tuesday. "I think that everybody wants to find ways to fund education that will be workable."
Wolery agrees with Musgrove's claim that everybody wants to find a workable solution to K-12's funding woes and only differs slightly from Musgrove's view of how much funding should be added to HB-121.
"I'd be happy with about 2.5 percent (increase) for the first year and 2.5 for the second," Wolery said. This in addition to the 3 percent increase schools received during the special session last September.
"I think the schools are facing some real problems with energy costs, which isn't their fault, and a declining number of students," Wolery said. "They've just got a real shortfall with what they have to deal with."
Musgrove, on the other hand, would like to see a 2.5 percent increase the first year with a 4.5 percent increase the second year.
"That's somewhere around $40 million," Musgrove said. "So we have to come up with an additional $21-$24 million."
The original HB-121 contains a zero percent increase in funding for the first year of the biennium and a 3 percent increase for the second a total increase of about $13 million a figure $54 million less than what the education community wanted and supported in Rep. Carol Juneau's HB-31 that was killed in committee March 13.
Over the last few weeks, the house has been working to find ways to increase the $13 million figure proposed by Republican Gov. Judy Martz, only to have one funding source after another added to the bill and then stripped away a short time later.
The process might frustrate Musgrove, but it doesn't worry him.
"It's going to be like bad chili," Musgrove said. "It's going to come up again several times before it gets its final form."
One funding scheme Wolery said is being considered involves tying a 5 percent increase in education funding to a cigarette tax referendum that if passed by the voters will funnel some of the revenue into education. Proposed increases in HB-121 may be tied to the passage of the Referendum.
Wolery said there is a little bit better chance the referendum bill would pass if the figure was less than 5 percent
If the referendum fails then the increased funding for HB-121 would also fail, Wolery said.
Another piece of legislation where Musgrove and Wolery agree is Musgrove's own HB-625, which calls for a two-year study commission that would examine, among other things, K-12 funding formulas.
Currently the bill has been stripped of the $50,000 price tag and has been referred to the Senate Education and Cultural Committee.
"Somewhere the Senate will have to find a way of funding it," Musgrove said. "Otherwise, no matter what we do with it, it won't pass to the governor."
Musgrove and Wolery are both optimistic about the bill with Wolery noting that he believes there is broad bipartisan support for the bill and has even heard Speaker of the House, Rep. Dan McGee, R. Laurel, speak highly of it.
Musgrove said he is very hopeful the bill will be funded at some level.
"For 138 years of formal education in Montana we have always had problems with funding," Musgrove said. "And all we've ever done is just add on to old methods without really reviewing whether we should streamline it in any way."
Wolery said it isn't enough just studying the pile of money and deciding how to divide it.
"That isn't going to fix anything," he said. "We've got to really come up with some cost cutting solutions for education or some more money and that will be part of the mix too."