By Ron VandenBoom
Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, said he's optimistic that the legislature is going to do better funding Montana's K-12 school system than was originally suspected.
"I'm optimistic that we are going to do quite a little bit better," Wolery said.
Wolery said that rumors are circulating that new sources of funding will be pulled out of the hat at the last minute that could pump another $20-$30 million into the education pot.
Sen. Jon Tester, D. Big Sandy, said the same thing earlier this week during a telephone interview from the capitol. He said it is not uncommon for the legislature to find an unexpected source of funding during the last minutes of a session to meet the needs of something like schools.
Reports coming from the legislature over the last several days seem to confirm a rabbit-out-of-the-hat funding trick might well be in the works.
At least $17 million in projected revenues was announced Wednesday by Revenue Department officials and some lawmakers suspect the increase could be as high as $37 million. The increase would allow the state to maintain the minimum $40 million needed to meet emergency expenses over the biennium with something left over for schools.
Wolery said he was not willing to go on record with precise predictions about dollar amounts, but guessed the figure might be around a 2.5 percent increase the first year of the biennium with 4.5 percent the second.
In addition to concerns over education funding, the legislature is also struggling to find solutions to the looming energy crisis that is expected to hit residential consumers hardest when the negotiated price freeze is lifted from utilities in 2002.
Wolery said he sees perhaps five bills being passed by lawmakers that will make it to the governors desk.
Wolery's estimate is slightly lower than Tester's prediction that eight pieces of legislation would be reviewed by the governor, but he agrees with Tester's assessment that the governor wants several pieces of legislation to consider so she can use them as a hammer to extract concessions from the power companies.
Joint committees of the House and Senate have already started working through the more than a dozen bills currently being considered by the House or the Senate. Their goal is to come up with several pieces of energy legislation that are concise and that do not conflict or contradict one another.
Wolery said there is no perfect answer out there to the pending energy crisis, but he said that the House leadership has done what he considers to be an outstanding job dealing with the issue.
"It's been a really big job," Wolery said.
A bill originally suggested by Hill County Attorney David Rice was sponsored by Wolery during this legislative session and is now on its way to the governor's desk for signature.
HB-195 recently passed the Senate 48-0. It would add criminal possession of dangerous drugs and criminal possession with intent to distribute to the list of crimes that, if committed by a youth 16 years of age or older, can be transferable from youth court to district court. The bill is intended to allow adult courts to deal with habitual offenders, or offenders close to 18-years-of-age, who currently may not receive appropriate sentences in youth courts.
As things begin to wind down at the 57th Legislature Wolery said most committee work has been completed for this session and mostly floor work remains.