By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog
HELENA – Add freezing college tuition to the wish list of proposals the governor is trumpeting in his final months of office.
A day after Democratic leaders proposed a tuition freeze, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said that idea, which comes with a $34 million price tag to the state, would be part of his last biennial budget submission in November.
It adds to a list that will whittle away some of an estimated $453 million ending-fund balance. In the past few months, the governor has proposed 5 percent salary increases for state employees each year for the next two years (estimated to cost $138 million, with $71 million of that from the General Fund) and using state funds for pension reform.
But he won’t be here to see those proposals through, as the Democratic governor’s term expires this year, prior to the 2013 legislative session and subsequent budget approval.
“We are here to say ‘tuition is not going up in the state of Montana in the next two years,’” Schweitzer said at a Thursday news conference at the Capitol. It’s the third time the governor has proposed a tuition freeze during his administration. So far, tuition rates have been frozen for four of his eight years in office.
Schweitzer said students need to have access to quality education if the state wants to be competitive in the global economy and attract higher-paying jobs.
To fund the tuition freeze for in-state students, the governor said he would add $34 million to the higher-education budget, bringing the total to $357 million. He said his idea has the support of the Board of Regents.
Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education, said the governor’s plan would freeze tuition for two years for nearly 40,000 Montana undergraduate students per semester.
According to the Montana University System website, University of Montana and Montana State University students pay about $5,000 a year in tuition.
The governor’s freeze would not impact students at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Miles Community College in Miles City and Dawson Community College in Glendive, as they are locally governed, McRae said.
It also does not include fees, which typically are tied to the cost of inflation, he said.
McRae said the board has yet to take formal action as the tuition freeze is contingent on legislative approval.
But, he added, “I sense the board is very interested in this prospect.” McRae said the freeze could begin in fall 2013.
Democratic legislative leaders said freezing college tuition was among the ideas they were promoting this election.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill has proposed using natural resource taxes to pay for schools.
“We are the ones talking about innovative solutions for education funding,” Greenwood said.
Hill did not immediately offer comment on the governor’s proposal.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock, who now serves as attorney general, said in a prepared statement that he favored freezing tuition.
“As governor, I’ll freeze tuition and work to make a college education more affordable for students and their families, because these annual tuition increases are, plain and simple, tax hikes on middle class Montanans,” he stated.
“My top priority will be making sure the next generation has the opportunity to get a great education and a good-paying job here in Montana.”
Hill issued this statement through his spokesman, Brock Lowrance: “University tuition is increasing much faster than most students can afford; this is an unsustainable trend. Rick thinks keeping tuition affordable for Montana student’s should be the university system’s top priority, not just an afterthought.”
He said Hill will appoint regents who will work with him to lower costs.
“Rick believes that we find can efficiencies, utilize our resources better, and in turn reduce tuition by implementing priority budgeting within our university system,” Lowrence stated.
Contact Phil Drake at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 442-4561.