Montana Viewpoint

March 31, 2008

Sometimes it seems to me that most of the laws the Montana Legislature passes are based on one simple, cardinal principle; distrust. Not so much distrust of citizens, but distrust of the supposedly independently elected local boards or governments that the legislature distributes money to. This sets up the unfortunate situation where people become more concerned about messing up and getting in trouble than they do in succeeding at what they’re supposed to do.

In the 1972 rewrite of the Montana Constitution the Board of Regents was given virtually total control of their budget and internal affairs of the University System. Of course, the legislature decides how much that budget will be, but once that’s done it’s pretty much out of legislative hands. This move was prompted by years and years of individual legislators going into the university budget and taking money from one enterprise and putting it into another one that they liked better. It was also possible for a legislator to fire a professor by eliminating the funding for the job.

Has this made things better for higher education in Montana? I’m no expert on the subject, but I think it has. For one thing you don’t have legislators with an ax to grind taking it out on the Universities, and you don’t have legislators who don’t know from silly putty telling college administrators what to do.

School funding is the “on the other hand” example because the legislature is involved in every detail of the process. The legislature also distribute funds to primary and secondary schools with enough strings attached to crochet an afghan.

In an effort to be “fair” school funding has become so incredibly complex that only a very few people understand it with any degree of completeness, and no one understands it completely. Of course, there are rational reasons for some of the complexity, but there are plenty of irrational ones, too

Much of this is designed to make sure that school boards conduct their business within the narrow framework approved by the legislature. But here’s a novel thought that most legislators don’t understand; school board members aren’t dumb. In fact, they know school funding issues better than most legislators; and they know more about the needs of their district than any legislator, even their own. They aren’t spendthrifts, either, and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

In short, they know what they are doing where the proverbial rubber meets the proverbial road. So do county commissioners, city council members, and every other paid or unpaid administrative group. This disconnected relationship is the same one legislators grouse about when they talk of “unfunded mandates” from Congress. If we legislators understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end wouldn’t you suppose we would be sensitive to those other political entities we oversee? Well, apparently not.

One of the issues, of course, is that there is not enough money in the state to fulfill anybody’s wish list, including schools, but could what money there is be allocated with general guidelines instead of micro-management? Where I live it seems to me that school administrators have to spend more time figuring out the budgetary complexities visited on them by the legislature than they do on seeing that kids succeed. That doesn’t have to be.

Many school administrators are of the opinion that they are better equipped to design a school funding program than legislators of bureaucrats. That may or may not be true, but sometimes I think it’s worth a shot. I’m always ready to let the folks in a dispute figure it out among themselves. In fact, it’s my basic attitude towards government regulation: “you can figure it out, or the government can figure it out for you; your pick.”

I know what my choice would be.


Jim Elliott