Higher education is feeling the budget crunch in Helena.
Citing financial uncertainty in the Montana Legislature, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian asked the Board of Regents this week to postpone a decision on 2 percent raises for administrators and other professionals.
In a conference call, Christian also said a proposal is on the table that would reduce funding for higher education by $23 million a biennium, including $2 million for community colleges. The amount represents an overall cut of nearly 5 percent.
However, the commissioner also said he believes his office can make a strong case that investments in higher education are worthwhile – and make up some ground.
In a meeting via conference call Thursday, the regents agreed with Christian's request to defer a decision on raises.
The regents approved contract hires, though, including the one for University of Montana interim president Sheila Stearns at a base salary of $309,207; last month, Stearns stepped in to temporarily take the helm at UM for outgoing President Royce Engstrom while a search takes place for a permanent president.
"Your presence is already being felt, and thank you for accepting that responsibility," Christian said in the call to Stearns.
Friday, deputy commissioner of communications Kevin McRae said the proposed reductions "would have a significant impact on all campuses." He said it's too soon to know how cuts would affect specific schools, but the decrease would mean fewer courses, and program reductions and eliminations.
"It would be cutting education and raising tuition at the same time," he said.
McRae said some $17 million is direct campus funding for student education and $2 million is money for community colleges. The remaining $4 million supports a variety of educational endeavors and institutions like tribal colleges, UM's forest and conservation research experiment station, and other programs.
"A $23 million budget hole is too big to fill entirely with tuition because middle-income Montanans would never be able to afford the consecutive years of tuition increases that would be necessary to fill that hole," McRae said.
The reduction represents a 7.6 percent decrease to community colleges in the 2018 fiscal year, and an 8 percent drop in the 2019 fiscal year, he said.
Gov. Steve Bullock's proposed budget was roughly flat for higher education, but it had other agencies experiencing decreases.
When the session opened up this month, Bullock’s budget included $74 million in proposed cuts, while Republicans controlling the Legislature said they aimed to trim $120 million. Bullock also proposed $280 million in new taxes, something Republicans oppose.
McRae said students are advocating for even more money than Bullock proposed for higher education, and the Commissioner's Office believes it's sensible to advocate for at least as much as the governor recommended.
"We believe that that's appropriate because Montana still ranks 49th in the nation in per-student college and university education funding," McRae said.
In other business, the regents also approved the following:
• At UM, a master of science degree in data science within the Department of Mathematical Sciences to augment the existing data analytics program.
• A $5 million loan to fund the Washington-Grizzly Champions Center. The regents had already approved the overall $14 million project, with $8.6 million coming from donations and $400,000 from athletic ticket revenue. However, the type of loan was not determined earlier; it will be an INTERCAP loan through the Montana Board of Investments with a variable interest rate that's currently 1.55 percent.
The original financing plan has not changed, according to deputy commissioner of administration and finance Chuck Jensen. He said the revenue streams committed to the project continue to be sound. The regents don't intend to raise student fees to cover the project, Jensen said; however, they maintain the right to do so if necessary in the future, according to the document posted online with the item.