2011 Legislative Session
The Oil/Gas Revenue Debate:
A Discussion of the Larger Issues Involved….
I received the following letter from the Montana Rural Education Association. It was written by Gordon Hahn, Saco School District Superintendent and was sent to the 2011 Legislature. Interesting take on the governor’s proposed budget which is structurally unbalanced, relying on one-time money transfers as well as robbing surpluses from fiscally responsible eastern Montana schools.
As a reference, I am the superintendent at Saco School District in Saco . We subsidize our school budget significantly with oil and gas money and thought I would give a different perspective to mull over as it relates to the oil and gas revenue controversy. My words reflect a view from the inside of this controversy.
Saco doesn’t take any GTB and we don’t run any mills for the school, including permissive ones. We do, however, pay the mandatory 95 state wide education mills. We subsidize our GFB by about 60% with oil and gas revenues. We also fund many of our other funds with oil and gas money so as to not burden our local and/or state taxpayers. We don’t compete for other grants (except the Federal ones) or special OTO money so as to not take any funds from a district that might need it.
An argument I consistently hear is that “it isn’t fair” that our tax payers aren’t assessed any mills for the school when other districts are. The position reminds me of the 6 year old that complains he didn’t get as big a toy at Christmas as his 12 year old brother did. Parents, myself included, often tell their children that “life isn’t fair” because, frankly, it isn’t. There are always two sides to every situation and this oil and gas one is no exception.
Is it “fair” that Saco ’s taxpayers don’t have any mills for our school? Is it “fair” that Billings has a swim team and we don’t? Is it “fair” that Helena can offer four years of French when I can’t even offer any foreign language? Is it “fair” that Bozeman is surrounded by mountains when Saco isn’t? Is it “fair” that I have to drive 6 hours for a meeting in Helena when Townsend only has to drive 30 minutes? Is it “fair” that we have to go 2 ½ hours to shop at Wal-Mart when Billings has two of them? The truth is this: You can’t “equalize” everything across the state, including school funding, because no matter what you do, something “isn’t fair” to someone else. Is it “fair” to tax us additional mills when we won’t even use it? Is it “fair” to force us into needing tax mills so other districts can reduce theirs? Is it “fair” for us to subsidize AP physics class in Missoula or Helena ’s tennis team by taking our money away when we don’t have the same “extra” programs? Is it “fair” that the property values here are significantly lower than Kalispell’s?
We, here in the northeast, put up with the drilling, the trucks, the cost of living, and the impact of getting oil and gas revenues. The “western” portions of the state won’t allow exploration of oil and gas because “heaven forbid” they cut down a tree to do it. I’ve seen reports that there are more oil and gas reserves in the west than the east. Why not push a bill that spreads oil and gas money to schools in counties where they allow oil and gas exploration? That seems fair to me. Perhaps then, the western portion of the state will begin to tap into the financial benefits of their own oil and gas reserves.
Allow me a simple anecdote: I bought property north of Saco when I took my job here. My land borders one of the irrigation canals that passes through the Saco flats. We are assessed (about) $750 per year for irrigation rights even though I don’t irrigate any of my land and never will. Is that “fair”? I don’t use it, but I’m taxed on it anyway.
What’s the point? The point is this: “It is what it is”. If I don’t like the irrigation tax, I can move to an area that doesn’t border the canal. Saco has no school mills for its taxpayers. If someone wishes they had “no mills”, they can move here. It is what it is. If I want a school with a swim team, I’ll move to an area that has one….I’m not going to complain because my current school doesn’t have a swim team. If I want to live where there are mountains, I’ll move there. Finally, if we intend to equalize things, I’d like the mosquito problem here to be eliminated so we have the same mosquito count as Billings J. Wouldn’t that be “fair”? It is what it is.
It just doesn’t seem appropriate to take what is earned here and spread it around to those counties that won’t allow any drilling. Are the people of Saco fortunate to have the oil and gas money? Sure we are. Are the people of Helena fortunate to have a school with four years of French and a speech and drama team? Sure they are. Is it right to make the people of Saco subsidize the cost of running the schools in Helena when we don’t have the same amenities? No. Saco doesn’t have near the peripheral opportunities large schools offer but these same schools want to take our money from us to support their programs. Perhaps if the legislature could guarantee that Saco High School can have everything that Missoula high schools have, maybe then sharing oil and gas revenues would be “equitable”.
I know there aren’t any easy solutions to the state’s funding of schools. We are in this hole because of the mismanagement of the funding two years ago and now, it appears, the State wants to take money from schools that have management their resources well. I suggest that instead of taking from us to “equalize” us with other schools, why not look at ways to give more to schools so as to equalize them with us? How? Allowing state-wide drilling. That’s how.
Until all taxes are “equalized” throughout the state, it isn’t right to take from a selected few and give to all. If this is done, then ALL tax revenues (property, utilities, natural resources, etc.) need to be shared equally.
I’m tired of hearing the “fair card” played and that we need to “equalize” out school funding in this debate. You can’t make everything “fair”. We’ve been telling our children this for years.
Gordon P. Hahn, superintendent