UM main hall stockimage (MIS)

The University of Montana's main hall. 

Gov. Steve Bullock's proposed budget for higher education keeps funding relatively flat from the 2017 to 2019 biennium.

That's not bad news, but it does mean that tuition increases remain on the table.

Sen. Cynthia Wolken, Missoula's sole representative on the state finance committee, said it's a challenging budget season for Montana. As a result, a level budget for colleges and universities is a win in the context of the big picture.

The Democrat said the budget has some state agencies cutting 5 percent, but not higher education.

"University funding remained flat, which is good," Wolken said.

The governor's budget proposes roughly $194 million a year to be appropriated by the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of communications for the Commissioner's Office, said the allotment allows campuses to serve their students.

"We view this funding proposal as one that is very fair to higher education," McRae said. "There are a lot of state agencies who their section of the budget book decreases."

However, since costs are still going up and funding is flat, the university system will need to make up the difference one way or another, pending changes by the Montana Legislature. 

"If that level of funding were the outcome of the legislative session, the board (Montana Board of Regents) next May would have to decide either to raise tuition or make reductions in programs and services," McRae said.

The Montana Legislature has appropriated funding for higher education that has allowed the regents to freeze tuition for more than six years at the four-year campuses.

McRae said too many factors are still up in the air to speculate on how high a tuition increase the board might entertain. However, he said tuition in higher education goes up faster than the consumer price index.

"Indeed, the board might have to consider some additional tuition revenue," McRae said.

If the governor, Legislature and regents had not made decisions that ended up allowing a tuition freeze in past biennium, the university system would have needed to increase tuition an estimated 10 percent each year, he said – or make significant cuts.

In general, McRae said the proposal from the governor's office is fair all around to the higher education needs of the state. 

"If we could receive from the Legislature the funding level the governor has proposed, it would allow the university system to continue to educate and serve a great many Montanans at the level they are used to," McRae said.

Sen. Wolken said the governor's budget also has other good news for higher education, pending legislative approval. It funds pay-plan adjustments and increases for faculty and staff; the state increases are generally 1 percent a year for both years.

"The concern is that we have staff and faculty leaving to take better paying jobs because regionally, our pay is pretty low," Wolken said. "So the good news is that we'll be able to maintain our wages."

On the other hand, she said the budget doesn't offer money for the proposed health sciences curriculum at the University of Montana. It also doesn't include any one-time funds to help UM recover from the budget crunch that resulted from its enrollment drop.

"The university is just going to have to have all hands on deck to improve enrollment and turn the ship around so we can get them more tuition dollars back and fund some of the cutbacks that have happened," Wolken said.

However, the Commissioner's Office points out that UM is spending a historic amount of money per student and its funding is at a record high level.

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Reporter for the Missoulian