By Jon Tester
Last week saw the discussion on educational funding heat up with debate on SB 500 and HB 121. The Senate Finance Committee worked on HB 2, the major funding bill that funds all the state agencies and passed it out to the Senate floor. HB 2 will now be debated by the entire Senate on either Thursday or Friday.
The week started out with the Senate Education Committee putting about $67 million into SB 500 for the purpose of funding K-12 public education. After SB 500 was passed out of the Senate Education Committee, it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee where it was killed. The debate centered on which bill would be the funding vehicle for education and if $67 million was an appropriate amount of funding to put towards education. The majority of the Finance Committee members felt that $67 million was too much money and chose HB 121 (currently funded at $20 million) to be the school-funding vehicle, and killed SB 500. SB 500 also contained a funding mechanism called a flex plan. The flex plan's function was to capture the lost revenue due to school districts declining enrollment. The school funding mechanism will be studied over the legislative interim to establish a more equitable funding method. Currently, school funds from the state are allocated based on the number of schools within a school district and the number of kids attending those schools within a particular district. It is my belief that the proposed funding mechanism in SB 500 will be considered in the interim school funding study. On Friday the probable school-funding vehicle, HB 121, was amended from $20 million to $40 million. This bill was referred to the House Taxation Committee on Saturday for the purpose of determining a funding source to fund this bill.
HB 2 not only appropriates money for state agencies, it also contains language detailing how that money is spent. The Senate Finance Committee spent the majority of Thursday and Friday working on HB 2. There were more than 80 amendments offered dealing specifically with the dollars in HB 2 of which approximately 30 passed the committee. We had another 15 amendments offered dealing with the language that were almost all adopted. When all was said and done, the Senate Finance Committee reinstated a little more than $700,000 of the $9 million in agency cuts offered by the House. The 6.5 percent reduction in full-time equivalent employees was reduced to 5 percent and nearly half of the 25 percent reduction in agency travel offered by the House was restored. Some 29 other reductions and increases were passed by the committee.
On Saturday the Public Service Commission took public comment on their proposal to extend their regulatory ability over MPC/Northwestern and PP&L Montana. As I explained last week, if this decision holds up in court, it could offer some relief in the expected increase in power rates come July 1, 2002. Public comment lasted for about three hours at this hearing and was attended by some 200 people with the vast majority of those people in support of the PSC's proposal to reregulate.
Only MPC and PP&L spoke against the PSC's efforts to extend deregulation past the July 1, 2002 drop-dead date (the date when deregulation is initiated for small business and residential electricity users).
The Country of Origin Bill was amended heavily last week in the House Ag Committee. Multiple amendments are a way to kill a bill when committee members don't have the courage to vote against it. Companies like Kraft and Anheuser Busch lobbied hard and infused much confusion and doubt into the minds of mainly the ag producers on that committee. The Committee saw fit to strip all the penalties out of the bill, delay its effective date until 2003, and, with the exception of beef, eliminate all food products including grain from the bill. Time will tell what will happen to this bill in the process, but at the present time this bill is much ado about nothing.
Thanks for all the letters, e-mails and phone calls. If you have any questions, please contact me at Box 243 Capitol Station, Helena, MT 59620 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 444-1444. Until next week, may you be blessed with health, happiness and moisture.