The Republican majority on an education subcommittee on Thursday cut $4 million in proposed state funding for programs ranging from those for gifted and talented students to providing vocational education, a move that jeopardizes an equivalent amount of federal money.
Earlier in the day, the GOP majority also chopped $1.3 million in state funds for free and reduced-cost school lunches and breakfasts for Montana’s needy children. That would have cost the state $33 million in federal funds, which help provide 3.5 million school lunches and 1.5 million school breakfasts to Montana students.
After learning of the loss of the federal school lunch money, Republicans quickly reversed themselves and restored the state appropriation.
The Democratic minority on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education opposed the Republican motions.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who led the attempt to cut the funding for the K-12 programs, said he and some other Republicans are working behind the scenes on a new school funding plan and waiting to see updated revenue estimates.
Democrats pressed Jones for details, but he was tight-lipped, except to say there would be funding for some of the programs cut Thursday.
“We have a general conceptual plan of reassembly (of the budget) to propose a plan of educational excellence,” Jones said.
He suggested some of it would be patterned somewhat after President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which is a national competition for states to undertake school reforms.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who attended the meeting, said she knew nothing of Jones’ plan and that neither she nor her staff had been consulted.
“I’m excited for them to wave the magic handkerchief and pull a rabbit out of the hat to come up with their vision for education,” Juneau said. “Hopefully their rabbit may provide a plan. What I’m afraid of is the rabbit may not have an eye for a vision.”
Jones said he hopes the Legislature will see some improved state revenue estimates in the coming days. The revenue estimates adopted unanimously by an interim legislative committee in mid-November are now about $104 million less than what Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget office projected in mid-December.
The House Taxation Committee has yet to schedule a hearing on House Joint Resolution 2, which contains the legislative revenue estimates, which are usually modified during a session.
“I guess I’m getting frustrated at the slow progress of revenue estimates,” said Rep. Bob Mehlhoff, D-Great Falls. “We need to get some projections so we can move forward.”
Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, asked Jones at what point the new Republican school funding plan will emerge and when it will come before the subcommittee.
Jones said the bill drafters have not been able to work on it yet because they have to finish writing general legislation. He said it would be a revenue bill, which has a later deadline, and would be introduced in the Senate by him.
“I think he has good intentions,” Hawks said, but added, “We need the concepts out so we can talk about the concepts.”
Jones said the concepts are not fully developed yet, but that he and others are working at getting them out.
Meanwhile, the following education programs were not funded Thursday: gifted and talented, secondary vocational education, adult vocational education, special education maintenance of effort and in-state residential treatment for some students.
The combined cuts of these programs reduced Juneau’s state general fund budget by about $4 million. If they were to stand, the state would lose federal funding of about the same amount, she said.