MISSOULA — The Montana University System has identified its list of priorities heading into the 2013 legislative session, where it will look to secure millions in funding to maintain the state’s standard of higher education while meeting the demands of growth.
Education officials will look for funding to cover inflationary costs over the next two fiscal years, and funding to cover an increase in employee pay. If both measures are approved, it would allow the state to freeze tuition through 2015.
Kevin McRae, associate commissioner with the Officer of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the MUS will also look for legislative approval to fund several building projects in Missoula, Billings, Havre and Bozeman.
The projects include a new Missoula College and a science building at Montana State University Billings. All the projects have been approved by the Montana Board of Regents and are included in the long-range building plan.
“The Missoula College project is the top priority for the board in our long-range plan,” McRae said. “There are a number of projects that have been identified in the governor’s budget.”
House Bill 14, introduced by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, seeks $87.9 million in appropriations and $87.9 million in general obligation bonds to complete eight long-range building projects, seven of which pertain to the MUS.
The bill also allows the state to seek $57.8 million in other funding sources, such as donations, grants and general fund money accrued by an agency. Those funds would be used to complete nine building projects, eight of which pertain to the MUS.
“We believe that when the information is shared and reviewed, it will be clear that the needs and capacity of certain buildings isn’t currently conducive to teaching and learning,” said McRae. “Legislators have generally recognized that.”
Under the University of Montana, the funding requests include $47 million for Missoula College, $2.5 million for an athlete academic center, and $9.3 million for the Gilkey Executive Education Center – all planned for Missoula.
UM Western is seeking $4.5 million for renovation to Main Hall, and $10 million is needed for an addition to the natural resources research center at Montana Tech of UM.
Under Montana State University, the requests include $20 million for renovations to Romney Hall and $25 million for Jabs Hall. MSU Billings is seeking $15 million for an addition to the science and instructional tech building, while MSU Northern is seeking $7.9 million for an automotive technology center.
The only project on the list not relevant to the university system is a $28.5 million request for the Montana Heritage Center in Helena.
All project requests would be funded through a combination of appropriations, bonding and other sources.
While the building projects are high on the list, education officials are looking to freeze tuition through 2015. But in order to do that, McRae said, the Legislature will need to appropriate funding to cover both inflationary costs and wage increases.
“We’re sensing that it is, and should be, a bipartisan interest to keep college tuition affordable and level,” McRae said. “If there are state resources to invest toward that need, we feel it’s in the common and bipartisan interest of Montana to do so.”
In fiscal year 2012, the MUS received $179.6 million in appropriations from the state general fund. The current budget proposal calls for $195.9 million in FY 2014 and $197.3 million in FY 2015.
Known as a present law budget adjustment, McRae said the increase would cover inflationary factors like heating, lighting and library services – the largest inflationary needs within the MUS.
“There’s a proposed increase of $34 million over the next two fiscal years,” McRae said. “It’s an inflationary adjustment that would allow us to continue present level services.”
In order to freeze tuition at current levels, McRae said, the Legislature must fund wage increases for state employees. If funding for both pay and inflationary expenses are met, the college affordability plan would go into effect.
“If we can get present law adjustment to cover inflationary costs, and if the Legislature passes a state employee pay plan – and if there’s an appropriations to fund those raises – the board would be able to commit to not raising student tuition for two years,” McRae said.
Also on the list of higher education needs is a funding request to expand an MSU program allowing students to earn a medical degree at the University of Washington.
Officials will ask the Legislature to fund additional slots in the program.
A similar program in veterinary medicine at MSU, arranged in conjunction with Washington State University, also needs funding to begin accepting students.
“There’s a shortage of vets in Eastern Montana serving the communities, especially large animal and livestock needs,” McRae said. “We’re exploring a WSU cooperative in veterinary medicine.”