HELENA — A state senator and businessman from Conrad known as a legislative dealmaker is gathering bipartisan support for an education overhaul that would increase money for state schools — and cut property taxes.
Republican state Sen. Llew Jones has long been known as a pragmatic policy wonk far more inclined to delve into complex financials than grandstand on hot-button political issues. For two years he has been turning that expertise into a one-man mission to travel the state and gather school district support for a revamped school funding mechanism.
The work is now paying off as school groups and others line up behind his school funding plan that could clear tough legislative hurdles to come. It faces its first committee vote Wednesday in the Senate.
Jones is working both Democrats and Republicans — and he will likely need a mix of both — with an eye on four simple majorities: He is counting support to get 26 senators, 51 representatives in the House, one governor — and perhaps the blessing of four supreme court justices if there is legal challenge.
"Those are the magic numbers up here," Jones said.
The cost of the bill could exceed $150 million over two years.
It is roughly split equally between new money for schools and local property tax relief, a combination that observers say is the key to its bipartisan success. New money comes to schools from natural resource revenue, and it ties school funding to future oil revenue in a way which appeals to some Republicans who would like to have another constituency pushing for natural resource development. State revenue from natural resource development would replace some school money that now primarily comes from local property taxes, freeing many districts from oppressive local school levies.
The measure has just enough in it for everyone to draw support from disparate school interest groups.
"They are not all doing backflips, but they put student achievement first and put aside their differences," Jones said of the traditional funding battles between urban and rural schools.
The measure is necessarily complex as it reaches through the matrix of school funding formulas and programs. The fiscal note just attempting to explain its cost runs 12 pages long. The bill is 43 pages long.
"I would love the bill to be simple, I would, but it can't be," Jones said. "We have tried piecemeal solutions in the past, they don't work. And they end up making things more complicated."
Many lawmakers are sitting on the sideline and watching the bill advance, almost in wonder that one man's vision for a school funding overhaul has a chance to clear the legislative maelstrom and be part of the crucial session-ending budget negotiations between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Steve Bullock's office.
Bullock, whose budget uses a far different approach to propose $70 million in new money for school over the next two years, is watching Jones' proposal closely.
"Investing in education is among Gov. Bullock's highest priorities, starting with early childhood education all the way through college," said Bullock spokeswoman Judy Beck. "The governor looks forward to working with Sen. Jones and other legislators whose focus is on education, to craft legislation that will make a sound investment in Montana kids, our communities and our future economic strength."
Teacher unions are backing the Republican's bill. So is the Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau. Some conservative-leaning school groups are on board, too. At a hearing last week, the measure received a long line of supporters.
It did get opposition from an environmental group opposed to the way school funding is tied to future oil and gas development.
"I want to have a stable funding source over time, not a funding source that I believe is going to haunt us over time," said Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Jones is proud of a bill that has required a dealmaker's touch to craft — and will require a lot more salesmanship if it is going to become law.
"This bill is the best solution we have seen for education in years," Jones said. "If there was ever an issue that shouldn't be partisan, this should be it."