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Rough start

Schweitzer steps up, butts in, on school funding

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Gov. Schweitzer raised more than a few eyebrows when he abruptly interrupted an interim school funding committee on Monday to hold a press conference announcing his call for a special legislative session, introducing his own plan to deal with the thorny issue of school funding. If the governor was interested in building bipartisan support for his proposal, which many see as merely a short-term funding measure, his butt-in approach pretty much guaranteed that next week’s special session will get off to a very rough start.

It’s fair to say that discontent with the interim school funding committee’s lack of progress is almost universal. Educators, administrators and school districts statewide waited for a solution while the months ticked by. To be fair, however, one must remember that the interim committee’s goal was not to simply come up with a stop-gap funding measure such as the governor has proposed, but to rework the entire school funding formula, which the Supreme Court had earlier ruled to be constitutionally inadequate.

Given the complex task, the interim committee labored to find a path through the funding formula mine-field, attempting to equalize educational opportunities between large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural school districts. To that end, the committee produced a massive 187-page bill, which Republican members of the committee pronounced dead on arrival, due in part to its complexity and the short time-frame for legislators and others to analyze it for a special legislative session this year. Instead, Republicans requested that the Secretary of State poll all 150 legislators to determine if enough votes could be garnered to call the body into a special session in January.

The interim committee’s work came to a dead stop with the governor’s announcement, however, and the committee itself was disbanded on the spot. Equally dead—or at least moot at this point—is any chance that legislators will vote to call themselves into a January session. But while the governor’s actions have at least provided some degree of certainty as to when, where, and what the special session will consider, it did not bury legislators’ concerns.

Perhaps exhibiting some political naiveté about legislative procedure, Schweitzer announced “our work is done” after putting forth his proposal. But as everyone knows, the only time the “work is done” in legislative matters is when the final gavel falls and the taillights leave Helena. Until that time, every piece of legislation, whether from the governor’s office or the lowliest, most novice legislator, has to run a harrowing gauntlet of hearings, amendments, debates, and then get enough votes to make it out of committee. And that’s just the start—from there it goes to gloves-off floor debate and, if it gets the votes, passes to the next house where the process starts all over again.

Only after making it through both the House and the Senate can a bill be signed into law by the governor, and even then, if it doesn’t come out with the conditions and appropriations he wants, his only choice is to issue an amendatory veto and send the bill back to the Legislature with the language and funding levels he deems acceptable. Of course, the Legislature is under no obligation to go along with the governor on his changes, and may well refuse to accept them, in which case the entire process comes to a dead and futile end.

So, despite Schweitzer’s optimistic declaration that the “work is done,” obviously the work will not be done until all parties come together in agreement—or at least until enough legislators agree to muster the majority votes necessary for passage—and therein lies the rub. The House is split 50-50 between Demos and Repubs, so some aisle-crossing will be required even to get a bill out of committee, much less all the way through the process. Complicating matters further, key Republicans have already panned the governor’s proposal and are threatening to introduce their own bills, which they would certainly have the right to do, although the chances of getting those bills through the Democrat-controlled Senate, much less past the gov’s veto pen, would be next to none.

Nor is the education community united behind the governor’s plan. Eric Feaver heads the powerful Montana Education Associa-tion-Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT) union and says he supports the proposal as “the only game in town,” even while admitting that it’s not “the final solution.” But Jack Copps, head of the coalition that successfully sued the state over education funding, told reporters he was “discouraged” because the governor’s proposal “just stopped everything in its tracks. He decided on his own what is best for Montana. I think democracy depends upon meaningful deliberations and that isn’t what happened here.” Dave Puyear, director of the Montana Rural Schools Association, was even more critical, calling the governor’s proposal humbug and predicting: “It’s a train wreck. It just isn’t going to happen.”

Then there are the Republicans who, after being stymied in their own attempts to call a session in January, are in no mood to “go along to get along” with Schweitzer. Two key members of the interim school committee accused the governor of “hit and run tactics” and said they were “blindsided” by his actions. “It might be politically where the governor thinks he has to go,” Rep. Bill Glaser, R-Billings, told reporters, “but it doesn’t mean I have to go over the cliff with the rest of the lemmings.”

The show will start in less than a week, which is short notice for legislators to leave home for Helena during the holiday season, and provides virtually no time for analysis or input from constituents. “All’s well that ends well” is a result to hope for—but for now, this special session is off to a very rough start, indeed.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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