- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s Republican legislative leaders are blasting Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for his spending plan’s cuts to education funding, while failing to mention that the cuts they propose go even deeper.

Last week, the state House passed a bill to increase direct state aid and entitlement funding to school districts to keep up with inflation. After the vote, House Speaker Austin Knudsen’s office released a statement that said the GOP majority is dedicated to funding K-12 education early to give school boards across the state time to plan.

The statement also blasted Bullock for his proposed 2018-2019 budget that would cut more than $21 million from the Office of Public Instruction, but made no mention that GOP leaders had voted to cut nearly $24 million from the same budget the week before.

How to balance the budget when the state is taking in less money than it’s spending has become the legislative session’s most important issue, and it’s one of the most difficult to understand.

Here’s a fact check on the actions taken in education funding so far:

WHO’S CUTTING WHAT?

The House Republicans’ statement touting Friday’s passage of House Bill 191 starts with a Twitter hashtag - #GovsBadBudget - and points out that Bullock proposed cutting $21 million from the Office of Public Instruction.

What the statement omits is that a Republican-led budget panel voted unanimously on Jan. 10 to accept the governor’s budget cuts - and the panel then increased those cuts to nearly $24 million over the two-year life of the budget, over Democratic lawmakers’ objections.

Republican leaders say that $24 million cut is only the starting point of budget negotiations, and some money will be restored in the coming weeks.

WHAT WAS VOTED ON FRIDAY?

Representatives voted 92-0 to pass HB191, which increases the state’s base aid and entitlement funding for schools - about $700 million currently - to match inflation. The bill projects the inflation rate as 1.37 percent in 2018 and 1 percent in 2019.

The bill must still pass the Senate and reach the governor’s desk.

House Republicans are taking credit for passing the measure early in the session, saying it will help schools plan their budgets early. But the bill still has to be approved by the Senate, where it could get hung up in the larger budget talks.

And the Republicans fail to mention the governor’s budget proposal includes similar inflationary increases to what was in HB191. They also don’t mention that the formula for those increases is set by state law and that the Office of Public Instruction is required to include those adjustments in budget recommendations.

At least one Democrat on the budget panel in charge of K-12 spending said the proposed GOP cuts and the speed with which the Republican majority put HB191 up for a floor vote sends conflicting messages.

“I imagine there’s a political angle to this, that nobody wants to be the ones who cut education,” said Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman.

WHAT DO THE SCHOOLS THINK?

The governor’s budget plan pays for some of the inflationary increases by eliminating two entitlements to school districts - Data for Achievement payments worth $3 million a year and Natural Resources Development payments worth $10.5 million a year.

School districts would lose the $3 million but they’d still get the $10.5 million, only the cost would be split between the state and the school districts. Taking away some entitlement funding and adding more costs to the school districts isn’t going to help an already strained financial picture for the state’s school districts, Montana School Board Association executive director Lance Melton said.

“It’s one of those straws you put on the camel’s back,” Melton said.

House Bill 191 did not include those entitlement cuts, but Melton said they could still be made in the Senate.

The inflationary increases don’t cover the actual cost increases in the school districts, anyway, Melton added. School districts will likely have to look for additional cuts themselves.

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