HELENA – A budget subcommittee on Thursday approved 3 percent budget increases for the Montana University System in each of the next two years combined, along with another two-year tuition freeze for in-state residents.
Members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education unanimously endorsed the budget, which goes to House Appropriations for the next step in a long process that will continue until late April.
The budget also included what officials called an unprecedented $15 million investment for research at the campuses over the next two years.
In his budget in November, Gov. Steve Bullock proposed the $15 million research appropriation and a tuition freeze for the next two years, just as tuition was frozen for two years in 2013.
“The universities had a good day,” said subcommittee member Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.
He added, “The university system today will be able to freeze student tuition, hold student tuition completely flat for the next biennium, so they will be able to keep kids across the board, whether you’re low income or high income, flat.
“Not only that we chose to make a significant investment, $15 million, into their research pots, the argument being when these kids graduate from these universities, we’re helping create the research, creating the areas, where they can have good high-paying jobs in Montana.”
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education for communications and human resources, praised the subcommittee action, including the tuition freeze and new money for research.
“We are pleased that the budget that the subcommittee has approved is supportive of the students and the colleges and universities,” McRae said. “It will allow our colleges and universities to continue our current level of programs and services.”
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said all the appropriations subcommittees were asked by legislative leaders to limit agency budget increases to 3 percent each year, and that’s what the education panel did.
Individual members of the Appropriations Committee can try later to add money for programs that they believe weren’t fully funded by subcommittees.
“I’m not bringing in our committee over (that 3 percent and 3 percent) because it’s not fair to the others that we’re over and they’re under, or vice versa,” Hollandsworth said.
Jones said the subcommittees are staying with 3 percent increases in each of the next two years, in part because the Legislature has not yet settled on an estimate of revenues.
Bullock’s budget office projects that state revenues for fiscal 2015, 2016 and 2017 will be $359 million more than the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Division forecast.
“That doesn’t mean some of the other items won’t be considered later,” Jones said.
Committee members also reached a memorandum of understanding with Bullock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian for the tuition freeze for in-state residents over the next two years. A similar memorandum was approved two years ago.
The memo goes on to say that the ability to freeze student tuition “relies on a state appropriation to the Montana University System to fund any raises that the Legislature approves in a state employee pay plan.” The pay plan is in a separate bill, House Bill 13.
Panel member Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said there was much to be pleased with in the subcommittee’s work, such as the money for research and the tuition freeze.
As a full-time adjunct instructor at Montana State University, Woods said, “I’ve never made more than $35,000 in a year, and I didn’t make that last year. I made about half of that.”
“We need to look at what we are paying the people who actually do the work,” he said. “It’s not enough. We have salary compression. We have salary inversion. We have very high cost of living in the places where these universities are, and it’s a big problem down the road. We haven’t addressed it yet.”
The memorandum also said that the Board of Regents “must commit to not increasing fees beyond what would be required for the normal programs that fees support.” It added that the system “will not shift costs from current unrestricted funding to fee-supported programs.”
As part of the memorandum, the university system will continue with performance funding and allocate $30 million of its budgets to campuses through a performance-based funding over the next two years.
This could include measuring improvements in how long it takes students to graduate at the campuses.