HELENA — Republican leaders rejected attempts last week to increase spending for higher education and human services, but they also rolled out their own plan to boost the state’s financial support for K-12 schools.
The debate over spending — and the effects of proposed cuts — will ramp up this week as the main budget bill moves to the House floor.
The uproar over early efforts by Republicans to hold down increases for public schools drew fire from Democrats and school officials who warned they would force local school districts to slash programs or raise local property taxes.
But now Republicans are touting a plan to tap into oil and gas money to increase the state’s share of the K-12 spending and reward schools for improvements. The complex, five-bill package they presented late last week could conceivably boost funding to levels higher than what Gov. Brian Schweitzer has proposed, GOP leaders said.
Schweitzer’s plan to pay for K-12 increases relied heavily on taking surplus oil and gas revenues from oil- and gas-rich school districts and spreading the money to schools statewide. But Republicans killed that idea, saying that it indiscriminately took funding from districts regardless of how much oil and gas money they brought in.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who will carry the major bill in the GOP package, said Schweitzer’s plan took too much money from oil country districts and would have led to excessive property-tax hikes for residents there. He also said it would have used the one-time transfers as a quick fix for rising costs without providing an ongoing source of funding.
The GOP plan would use surplus oil and gas revenues too, but less of them. Jones said it would also consolidate other state funds and transfer the money to pay off debts, like $50 million to the old workers’ compensation insurance fund, and pay for one-time expenditures like technology.
That would free up future revenue to go toward schools.
He also said his oil-revenue estimates weren’t based on the most current prices, so they could be larger.
But Democrats aren’t buying the GOP’s thinking.
“Instead of modifying a good idea, they started over,” said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “Now they have, from what I can see so far, is a much more complicated concept that essentially does the same thing.”
Sesso also criticized Republicans for not involving Democrats in the new plan. Many of the bills had not yet been introduced when the House Appropriations Committee examined the budget for K-12 schools.
“What can I say?” Sesso asked. “I mean, they’re in the majority. They’re going to do what they want. They’re deciding and telling us to trust them.”
Superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction Denise Juneau also objected to how the plan came together.
“It boils down to bills that have not even been vetted by the public, have not had public hearings,” she said.
“Some of them don’t even have bill numbers yet so to base K-12 funding on contingency plans does not seem like a good idea to me.”
But Jones said the plan’s concepts have been discussed from the session’s beginning with input from school district officials and efforts were made to involve Democrats.
Other cuts move ahead
Meanwhile, serious cuts in the governor’s proposed budget for human services and the university system are advancing.
GOP leaders told the governor last week that they intend to shrink on-going spending to a level that can be supported by ongoing income, not raids on savings as outlined in Schweitzer’s budget plan.
“Basically, what you’re saying is ‘Let’s spend that blue sky.’ That’s what I’m hearing you say,” House Speaker Mike Milburn told Schweitzer. “We can’t do that.
Milburn also said his party isn’t looking to spend all the revenue the state collects. “What’s been wrong with our budgets in the past is that (they) have always been developed on what we get,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
The debate over spending, or even tax cuts, hinges on how much money the state thinks it will collect over the next two years. Schweitzer and Democrats are more optimistic than Republicans.
They warn that Republicans will make it harder for students hoping to attend college, harder for parents looking to buy health insurance for their children, and harder for senior citizens looking for affordable prescription drugs.
“They’re in denial,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula. “They’re in complete denial of what our revenue projections are.
“Once again they’re proving themselves to be ideologues and not at all looking at the best interest of the people of Montana, and it’s very disappointing watching that for the last couple of days. It’s been just sickening.”
However, Williams said, once the budget gets over to the Senate she hopes to work with Republicans to restore some of the cuts.
Federal health care
Sen. Jason Priest’s Senate Bill 228 would prohibit the creation of a health insurance exchange, a key component to the federal health care reform. Basically, an exchange is a marketplace where people without job-related health care benefits can buy insurance.
The Senate passed the bill on party lines and will now be heard in the House Business and Labor Committee Thursday.
Meanwhile, a House committee is scheduled this week to consider another of Priest’s bills targeting federal health care reform. Senate Bill 106 would compel Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock to join other states in a lawsuit seeking to declare the reform unconstitutional.
A bill to repeal the 2006 voter initiative that legalized the medicinal use of marijuana made it out of the House in a 62-37 vote and will be heard Friday in a Senate committee.
House Bill 161, by Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, met heavy opposition during House committee hearings and backers expect it will draw similar fire in Senate hearings. Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he doesn’t believe the measure can pass the Senate.
That increases the pressure on Republicans to come up with a plan for regulating users, growers and dispensers of the drug.
Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, will present a measure to extend the time DNA evidence must be stored to the House Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 58 would allow people convicted of certain crimes, including murder and rape, to request that evidence be stored up to 30 years.
SB 58 passed the Senate with a 27-23 vote.
Two bills dealing with violence toward pregnant women moved over from the House and will be heard this week.
House Bill 167, by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would criminalize an offense resulting in the death of an unborn child. The measure drew criticism from abortion rights advocates as a back-door attempt to punish physicians who provide abortions.
House Bill 457, by Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, would increase the penalty for assailants who harm pregnant women. The bill became a part of the abortion debate when Republicans amended it to include the words “or her unborn child.”
The bill passed 78-21, with Noonan voting for it after a failed attempt at changing it back to the way he wrote it. He said he still thought it was a good bill and hoped to change it in the Senate.
Cody Bloomsburg is a journalism student at the University of Montana in Missoula and provided this story as part of the UM School of Journalism’s Community News Service project. CNS enables students to gain experience and academic credit by providing relevant, timely stories on issues of statewide interest during election cycles and Montana legislative sessions. Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.