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School funding bill death shows House, Senate differences

GREYBULL — The demise of House Bill 173, which would have changed the way the state funds its school districts, served as a reminder of the deep philosophical differences between the two chambers in the state legislature, according to Rep. Jamie Flitner of Shell.

Heading into the session which wrapped up last week, the House and Senate faced the same challenge. With the state facing a $300 million annual shortfall in education funding, lawmakers were tasked with figuring out a long-range solution.

That they didn’t — and that the current funding model will remain the same for the foreseeable future — will go down as the single most disappointing thing about the session.

And the comments of Sen. Charles Scott, a Republican from Casper, didn’t help.

As the session was drawing to a close, Scott rebuked members of the House, calling them “tax-and-spend liberals” with no interest in reigning in spending.

Flitner said Scott was “out of line” with his comments.

“Generally, it’s not good form for one member to call out his other members from the chamber in such a way,” she said in an interview. “But it represents the great difference between the House and the Senate – and it’s been that way since I arrived as a freshman legislator.”

On March 23, Flitner voted in support of the House version of HB 173, which proposed more shallow cuts than the version backed by the Senate, and also included a conditional half-cent sales tax increase that would only be triggered if the state’s “rainy day” reserves fell below a certain level, and a greater use of federal stimulus funding to backfill the education budget.

The Senate sought deeper cuts and rejected any new revenue sources.

“Historically senators are usually more conservative and I think the founders set it up that way for a reason,” she said. Your representatives in the house, they are your appropriators. I think there’s a balance there between the House and Senate, so that hasn’t changed.

“But the Senate has always held to that more conservative line.”

In the case of HB 173, Flitner said, “The Senate just feels like there are more reductions to be found in education.”

While respectful of that opinion, Flitner said she believes otherwise.

“We have told the school districts, ‘You will teach this.’ And we tell them, ‘This is what’s required in the basket of goods,’” she said. “But I don’t know how you can cut education without also removing some of what’s required in the basket of goods. It doesn’t make sense that we’d cut one without cutting the other.

“And that leads to the question, ‘What would you logically cut?’ Do you no longer think CTE is important? Do we eliminate music and arts? Do we just teach the basics of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic,’” she continued. “And there are other factors to keep in mind too, like the fact that the Supreme Court has said about education being equitable for all children in the state.”

Flitner said lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene for a special session in July, but doesn’t believe the school funding issue will resurface until the 2022 budget session. The special session in July is expected to focus on the distribution of federal stimulus funding.