HELENA – A legislative subcommittee on Tuesday approved a $28 million budget increase for the Montana university system over the next two years to cover most of the costs of freezing tuition for in-state students over the same period.
The increase will be $13.2 million the first year of the two-year budget period beginning July 1 and $15.04 million the second year.
In addition, the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education tied half of the increase in the second year – about $7.5 million in fiscal 2015 – to colleges and universities meeting certain performance standards, such as college completion rates and reducing the length of time for students to obtain degrees. These standards will be developed by the university system.
“We think of higher education as an investment in Montana and its future,” Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian said afterward. “We’re extremely pleased that this committee came together and moved our funding forward.”
All members of the subcommittee on Tuesday signed an addendum to the Feb. 1 memorandum of understanding signed by Gov. Steve Bullock and Christian to freeze tuition for in-state students for two years, provided the system received a certain increase in appropriations.
The addendum provides that half of the fiscal 2015 budget increase will be tied to performance standards developed by the colleges and universities.
The additional appropriation will cover 82 percent of the cost of freezing tuition. The remaining 18 percent will come from nonresident student tuition, according to Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education for fiscal affairs.
As part of the agreement, the Legislature also must appropriate sufficient money to cover any pay increases for university system employees.
All subcommittee members signed the addendum, but two of them – Reps. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, and Donald Jones, R-Billings – voted against the decision to appropriate the $28 million increase.
Sens. Llew Jones , R-Conrad, and Taylor Brown, R-Billings, led the push on the subcommittee to tie part of the budget increase to colleges and universities meeting performance standards.
“We all signed the agreement,” Llew Jones said. “I’m very pleased.”
Christian called the addendum calling for performance measures “sort of a historic moment” for the university system, with Bullock, him and all subcommittee members from both political parties and both chambers signing it.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said afterward, “We knew the direction we had to go. Senator Jones was trying to get certain performance measures. It’s the Board of Regents and colleges that have to do it.”
He added, “It’s amazing when you discuss things how the problems get solved.”
Rep. Robert Mehlhoff, D-Great Falls, also called the vote “historic.”
Twenty or 30 years ago, Mehlhoff said the state paid two-thirds of the cost of the university system and students the other third through tuition. Now, it’s the opposite, with students bearing two-thirds of the cost.
“This will stabilize this and perhaps turn it in the other direction,” he said.
Mehlhoff said he teaches at a two-year college, where many students are nontraditional, older students with families.
Mehlhoff said it could be counterproductive if the performance standards are set for students at two-year colleges to finish in two years. Many nontraditional students also work to support their families and aren’t able to complete their studies in two years, he said.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.