Friday, April 1, 2011

Schools may avoid levy loss

Bill appears set to languish in Senate


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Lobbyists and legislators say anything is possible, but the Blaine County School District may have dodged a bullet regarding a bill that could have cut 60 percent of its operating funds.

District Superintendent Lonnie Barber sent out an e-mail to staff this week saying that House Bill 197, which would have limited the district's ability to collect $29.5 million from county residents annually, will likely not go to a hearing in the Senate.

"The chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government and Taxation ... has indicated that he will not hear the bill," Barber wrote.

If the bill is not heard or passed by the committee before the legislative session ends, it would die and be required to start the legislative process over again next year.

In his e-mail, Barber credits Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Idaho Association of School Administrators spokesman Phil Homer with lobbying to keep the bill in committee this session.

"Once in a while around here, you catch a break," said Homer, a former Blaine County schools superintendent. "We just went around and visited with all the [Senate] committee members and explained our situations to them."

Jaquet said the members of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, where the bill was set to be heard, seemed to agree that it was "unfair."

Debate on education issues this session has been partisan and heated, particularly regarding state schools Superintendent Tom Luna's reform bills. But Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the levy bill was not terribly controversial on a state level as it would only affect four school districts, none of which are represented by members of the committee.

"None of the committee members have a dog in this fight," she said. "They were looking at it pretty objectively."

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The bill in question, H0197, would eliminate a permanent budget stabilization levy. Blaine County Schools were one of four districts allowed to weigh a permanent levy on county property taxes when the Property Tax Relief Act shifted school district funding in much of the state from county property taxes to state income and sales tax.

If approved, the bill would require the district to ask for voter approval of the levy every two years, as it already does for supplemental levies.

District Business Manager Mike Chatterton said earlier this month that staffing would likely bear the brunt of any funding loss.

Stennett said sponsor Rep. Ken Roberts, R-McCall, brought the bill up after hearing complaints from his own district.

"The only [community] he was concerned about was his own," she said. "Why should the other communities be dragged into a turf war?"

Stennett said that for now, it seems as though Blaine County will avoid that "war," and as far as she knows the bill will be held in committee. Jaquet said she, too, was hopeful it would languish.

"I think we should all be very optimistic," she said. "But you never know. There's always a game that could be played."

Complicating the issue is the possibility that the legislative session might be extended, as House Democrats lobby to get hearings on a cigarette tax increase and an education reform referendum. As a result, Homer said, it's hard for him to be too optimistic.

"If we'd got out of here on Friday, we'd probably be home free," he said. "You never know what might happen this late in the session. We're walking around here with our heads down low. We're being very careful."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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